Cat Memory: How Good Is It?

How good is a cat’s memory? This is an important question because it affects the behaviour of a cat and it can affect the way our cat interacts and relates to us.

cat-memory

However, you will struggle to find solid information about cat memory on the Internet. This page, therefore, is based upon what I can find on the Internet in conjunction with my own experiences. Most of it is based on my own thoughts. I hope you can add to them.

There are different kinds of memory in the same way that there are different kinds of intelligence. For example, there is spatial intelligence and logical intelligence. As for memory, there is long-term and short-term memory. Long-term memory is the kind with which we are most familiar, namely, remembering events in the past. Short-term memory can also be called working memory. It is something that is kept in mind while one is working on something. Writing this page is an example where I have to use short-term memory to remember the topics that I must write about.

In 2003, it appears that scientists were just beginning to realise that animals were able to remember past events. This sort of memory is referred to as “episodic memory”, a reference, presumably to remembering episodes of one’s past life.

As reported in National Geographic, scientists appear to have agreed “animals are using something related to episodic memory, but not necessarily the same as humans”.

However, research about animal memory is highly limited and at an early stage and I believe that you would find that most enlightened scientists would agree that the memory skills of animals are under estimated in the same way that their intelligence is. We can probably conclude that animals have long-term episodic memory.

One thing we do know through simple observation is that cats have long-term memory in respect of memorizing sounds, smells and orientation.

The Blind Cat

There are many examples on the Internet of blind kittens and cats learning very quickly how to get around their home without bumping into things. You will see a blind kitten at play, pushing around a ball, collecting the ball and fetching it as if she has sight. Of course, when it comes to playing with a ball, the cat will use her acute senses of hearing and perhaps olfactory skills to detect where the ball is. I would suggest that there may also be an element of short-term memory use involved in order to remember where the ball was and where it is now, so that its position can be mapped in the cat’s mind.

As for a blind cat walking around an apartment full of objects and furniture without bumping into them, this would seem to be an application of long-term memory in recording the position of the objects.

Scent Marking

We all know that cats who are not neutered like to spray urine onto vertical surfaces to mark territory. The smell of the urine decays over time. The smell changes. Cats are able to recognise how long the urine has been there and thereby know where the cat who deposited the urine is. The cat is therefore able to make a comparison between the smell of the once fresh urine that was before him and the smell of the older urine that is now before him. This would indicate that a cat has olfactory long-term memory.

This ability to store in the memory the scent and smell of substances, objects and people has been confirmed by me. I have visited the home of Helmi Flick in America. When I returned to her home after about a two-year absence her Maine Coon cat, Zak, recognised my scent.

Memory of Sounds And Our Voices

You have probably experienced this yourself. This is my example. There are many others. Long ago I took my cat to a boarding cattery. I returned two weeks later and as I approached the cage where my cat was I called her name. She immediately turned her head towards me conclusively indicating that she recognized my voice. She had not seen me as I approached.

Only one conclusion can be drawn from that: my cat had remembered my voice and it was in her long-term memory.

Visual Memory

We all know that cats are very fond of routine and very fond of living amongst familiar surroundings. Just like us, they take a long time to settle in to a new home.

I’m sure that a cat becomes familiar with a place, in part, because of the way the place smells. However, common sense dictates that the main reason why a cat becomes familiar with a place is because he recognises what he sees and in order to recognise what he sees he has to memorise what he has seen.

We have to conclude that cats have good visual memory. This is also borne out by the fact that cats are good at finding their way home. I guess that some cats are not good at this but there are a lot of stories of cats travelling long distances to return home. Cats can navigate, it is thought, by using the Earth’s magnetic field but another factor in this skill must surely be a cat’s ability to visually recognise the area that he would call home.

Short-Term Memory

This is a more tricky area. There is nothing on this in the way of a scientific study and I feel that I am unable to comment on it. However, as the cat’s brain is similar to ours and as the cat has long-term memory I think it is fair to suggest that it is likely that a cat has some sort of short-term memory as well. Fox News report on a study that suggests that a cat’s working memory lasts for 10 minutes.

Cat Abuse And Trauma

I believe that most cat lovers believe that the experiences that a cat has had can sometimes be reflected in his behavior later on. We notice that our cat may be frightened of a certain sound or a certain person and a certain situation. These are probably a reflection of the existence of the long-term memory of a past unpleasant experience.

Socialization

Isn’t the socialization of the domestic cat when he or she is a young newborn kitten during the first seven weeks of his life, an example of the use of long-term memory?

During socialization, a cat learns that other companion animals and people are acceptable. This is how a cat becomes a domestic cat. A cat learns many other things in the first weeks of his life and what he has learned is stored in his long-term memory. This, as I see it, is another example of a cat’s long-term memory.

I think one of the problems is that when we as humans think of long-term memory we think of recalling events in our past life. However, there are many other examples of the use of long-term memory.

Over to You

Most of what I have written is based upon my own experiences with my cats. Personal experiences are probably the best way to assess whether a cat has a memory or not. An important point to make is that only over the past 10 or 20 years or so have scientists began to understand the true intelligence of animals. There is much more work to be done in respect of recognizing the cognitive skills of animals.

The behaviour of a cat
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Comments

Cat Memory: How Good Is It? — 9 Comments

  1. What a GREAT aricle, Michael.

    Cats have very long memory- in my experience living with them for over 50 years. They remember where treats are stored- they remember so many things.. it’s impossible to list them all.

    Cats who have gone missing for many years and who are miraculously returned to their human companions remember them! It is truly remarkable.

  2. I believe cats have long term and short term memory too, they are far more intelligent than some people give them credit for and they are far more intelligent than some people are.
    On top of memory they have instinct, far more than we humans have!
    We will never know as much about cats as some people would like to, only a cat can know everything about a cat. I love their air of mystery and long may they keep it.

  3. I agree with Ruth AKA and Jo.
    Cats have both long and short term memory.
    They know what cabinets contain what and know what a can opener running means.
    They can, also, travel miles and miles to make their way home if lost.
    They are much better at all this than I am.
    I can’t even tell you where I left my watch this morning. I’ll bet Damon knows.

    • I trust your judgement, Dee. I think we can conclude that cats have a decent memory. The big question is whether the cat can remember events and if so how good is this part of their memory. We can visualize whole events that took place decades ago. Can cats do this? We don’t know.

  4. same i agree i reckon they can both. They know where that cat singles are kept and cat food. Often when i say to ozzie that ive run out he still looks at the fridge like no you havent. Then he gets really sad ;-( and i better get that cat food

  5. Excellent article Michael. I firmly believe that cats have “LONG TERM” as well as “SHORT TERM” memories. Having owned cats since 1995 i have come to this conclusion from own personal interaction with my cats over the years.

    • Good, Rudolph and thanks. We have both learned a lot about cats from personal observation. It is probably the best way and in some ways better than a scientific study.

  6. Monty certainly remembers that he was hungry as a baby, as reflected in his attitude toward food today.

    But he seems not to remember that coming down behind first out of a tree is the superior method. For every time he does it right, with great results, there are about seven more times he’s trying to go down head first with less than stellar results. I think he is stubborn. He can remember what worked, but he wants his claws to be able to work the other way, like a squirrel’s.

  7. A very interesting article, Michael. Sadly my experience would fall into the cat abuse and trauma section. I will tell you about it. One of my customers asked me to help with his cat. His previous cat he had to have put to sleep but he had just adopted another and she had been living with him for a number of weeks.
    He had quickly grown to love her and wanted to let her out but was scared of losing her so he asked me to put a harness on her to start with to get her used to outside. I did and the poor little soul was terrified 🙁 she ran all over the place with the lead trailing after her and when I finally caught her to take it off her heart was beating out of her chest 🙁
    This was weeks ago but even now whenever I go round she won’t come out from behind the chair and spits at me if I try to coax her. I feel so sad for her I think she will always associate me with that damned harness!!

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