BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

How Long Is A Cat’s Memory: They Remember More Than You Think

cat's memory
Steve Corelli
Written by Steve Corelli

You must have wondered how long is a cat’s memory and how it works. People often think that dogs have a better memory than cats because they are easier to train, however, things are a little different than they seem.

If you own both a cat and a dog, it is obvious that they have completely different personalities. A dog aims to please you—a cat wants to be pleased. Keeping that in mind, a cat will store only those information that she deems useful for her own gains, so it comes as no surprise that giving a high five isn’t high on her list of priorities.

Cats associate good and bad emotions with memories and have a great memory when it comes to the people they love. But they will also remember being mistreated and earning their trust back again can be hard.

Although scientists still don’t fully understand how a cat’s memory works, we will try to cover all the things that are known so far, including the capacity of their short term and long term memory, how they associate feelings to memories, and whether they are visual learners or they prefer to learn by doing. We will also cover the topic of how to boost your cat’s memory.

How Does a Cat’s Memory Work?

smart tabby cat with books

A cat’s brain occupies less than 1% of a cat’s total body mass. All the things that a cat experiences and senses are received, transmitted, and processed by neurons. The number of neurons present in the brain is an essential factor that determines the intelligence and memory capacity of a cat.

Just to make things a little bit clearer, cats possess three hundred million neurons, and dogs have one hundred and sixty million neurons. This means that cats have a much greater capacity to store and use memories compared to dogs. Since memories are stored in neurons, once the right neurons are activated, a cat can call back to mind old memories.

#1: Short Term vs. Long Term Memory

While dogs have a short-term memory of 5 minutes, a cat can retain information 200 times longer. New studies have found that cats have a short-term memory span of around 16 hours, which is pretty much the same as the short-term memory of a 2 or 3-year-old child.

A cat will make a selection and store useful short-term memories into the long-term memory. It is clear that cats will store information that they deem fit, but it is still unclear what mechanisms are behind it all.

Short-term memory or working memory allows cats to keep information in their minds and manipulate it. This type of memory is very important for problem-solving, and that’s why most cats are great at solving puzzles and finding their way out of toy mazes.

See Also: Cat Puzzle Feeder

Some research points out that cats can remember only as far back as three years. However, if you live with a cat, you will notice that some of her behaviors stem from memories that go way back, so this theory might not be true.

#2: Bad Memory vs. Good Memory

kitten hiding under the bed

It is unknown how a cat decides what information she wants to store in the long-term memory. What is certain is that cats record relevant events based on emotions of pain or pleasure. Events that are related to food or survival are more likely to be stored in long-term memory. These memories stick with a cat for long periods of time and shape her behaviors.

Stressful and painful events stay fresh in a cat’s memory for a long time. For example, every time you take out your cat’s carrier, she runs and hides under the bed, or simply vanishes. Your cat knows that the only time you take the carrier out is when she is about to be taken to the vet.

The bad experience at the vet’s office is stored in your cat’s long-term memory, and she associates the carrier with unpleasant experiences. Every time a cat stores some information as bad, it will shape her future actions and behaviors.

That’s why abused, and neglected cats are so mistrustful of people, especially of people that remind them of their abusers. So if a cat was ever mistreated by a person with a cane, a hat, or by a child, she would not allow other people with the same characteristics to go near her, and she even might attack them.

With that being said, be careful how you behave towards your kitty because she will certainly remember it. Furthermore, don’t let family members or guests mistreat your kitty because she will become guarded and can lash out.

This doesn’t mean that the cat will not remember nice things. Your cat will remember that every time you come home from a long trip, she receives a treat. So this memory will kick in, and your kitty will happily await your arrival ready to munch on the new can of food.

Furthermore, your cat will remember that she was cuddled by your best friend a couple of years back, and when your friend is back in town, she will expect a nice petting session.

Owners often wonder if their kitty will forget them if they have to move away or travel for longer periods of time. The answer is no, because, once your kitty sees you back again, she will remember all the good things from the past and be ready for a cuddle.

The same thing applies if you are moving from your parents’ or old home into a new one. If you bring your cat back, even after several years, she will have no trouble remembering where her favorite lounging place, food bowl, and litter box were located. Still, it is also not uncommon for cats to be apprehensive if suddenly moved.

Cats also have spatial memory so it comes as no surprise that uprooting them to a completely different place can be very hard on them. Because of spatial memory, cats easily learn their favorite spots, litter box, and feeding bowl, and changing all that can make a cat feel sad or depressed.

See Also: How to Introduce a Cat to a New Home

#3: Visual vs. Muscle Memory

A new study has shown that cats can remember certain kinds of information only for 10 minutes. This research was designed to compare a cat’s working memory of recent movements with their visual memory. The result showed that cats better remember with their bodies than with their eyes.

Researchers wanted to find out how cats keep track of objects relative to their bodies and how a cat remembers to bring up her back legs after the front legs have cleared the obstacle. They designed a test to see how well a cat remembers just stepping over the obstacle.

In the study, the cats were stopped and distracted with food after they stepped over the obstacle with their front legs. Then the obstacle would be removed without cat knowing so. The cat remembered stepping over the obstacle for the first 10 minutes and would remember to jump over it, even if it wasn’t there anymore.

In order to compare visual and working memory, researchers allowed the cat to see the obstacle, and before the jump, they distracted her with the food. After that, the obstacle was removed, and a cat just forgot about it being there.

The biggest surprise of the experiment was that cats have a short visual memory of just a few seconds, which is pretty much the same as dogs.

Still, when it comes to short-term memory, cats are still better than dogs. Furthermore, when it comes to long-term memory, cats are even more superior, being able to remember and recognize people and places that they haven’t seen in years.

Does Good Memory Make Learning Easier for Cats?

cat drinking water from the sink

Because of their great memory, intelligence, and ability to mimic others, cats are excellent learners. Even from a young age they will observe their mother, and learn how to groom, hunt, and behave during dangerous situations. Cats can also learn by mimicking you.

Cats are intelligent and observant creatures that take careful notice of the things we do. The same way a kitten will remember being carried by its mother, your cat will watch you open the door, or drink water from the sink, and remember this information in order to mimic your behavior.

From the time they were born, cats learn through different experiences and observations in order to have a good life. By selecting valuable short-term memories and storing them in long-term memory, a cat is prepared to react appropriately the next time when she is in the same situation.

Did you ever wonder how first-time cat moms know exactly what to do to keep their kittens safe and healthy? Well, they observed the behavior of their mother and store the memory of it for future references. A cat will also experience all the feelings that are associated with that memory during the process of learning from it.

But when it comes to learning, a cat will be only willing to learn things that she personally finds valuable and of use. That’s why cats are harder to train than dogs since they don’t see any personal gain in learning a few tricks in order to make you happy. This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to train a cat to do anything—it only means that it will be harder.

See Also: How to Teach a Cat Tricks

Your cat probably doesn’t see the difference between sharpening her claws on your new sofa and a scratching post. Still, it is possible to teach the cat that the sofa is off limits, but you will have to be patient and use positive reinforcements like treats.

Cats have the greatest learning potential when they are very young and in adolescence, but they can keep on storing memories their whole life.

Unfortunately, some older cats can develop feline cognitive dysfunction, which is pretty much the same thing as Alzheimer’s disease in people. They will suffer from memory loss, become disoriented, and in some cases, have trouble remembering who their owners are.

How to Boost Your Cat’s Memory

training a cat

Cats are naturally curious creatures that can keep themselves stimulated and occupied. But in some cases, a kitty can become lazy and in need of brain stimulation. Luckily, this is easily done, and by stimulating your cat’s brain activity, you can improve her memory.

High-quality food can increase the capability of your cat’s brain. Macronutrients like omega 3 and six fatty acids, vitamins C and E will prevent the brain from aging and keep your cat sharp for a longer time. You can also supplement your cat’s food, but we recommend that you do so only after you’ve consulted your vet.

You can also try to teach your kitty new things in order to exercise her brain and improve her memory. And even though cats aren’t interested in learning tricks, you can stimulate your kitty by offering treats and teaching her to memorize the positive stimulus.

Keep your kitty occupied and prevent boredom by keeping her mentally stimulated with puzzle toys, obstacles, and mazes. All of this will keep a cat’s brain well working and minimize the chances of deterioration.

Wrap Up

gray cat remembering something

Although scientists still don’t have answers to many questions regarding a cat’s memory, one thing is for sure—cats can remember things for a long time. Even though one research states that they can remember only three years back, this is not likely to be the case.

Felines associate their memories with positive and negative emotions and base their behavior and reactions on them. Their memories also allow them to store the identity of people and other pets and the feelings that are associated with them.

So it comes as no surprise that your cat will lash out at your uncle every time he comes over because he kicked her off the sofa five years ago.

And while cats can hold grudges, they also remember nice things. Your kitty will remember and greet you with all the love and affection even if you’ve spent six months living abroad.

Do you know about some anecdotes or stories regarding a cat’s memory? If so, please share them with us in the comment section below. If you’re interested in learning many more fun facts about your cat, you might want to give our article on how do cats see a shot.

About the author
Steve Corelli
Steve Corelli

Steve Corelli is a Pet Nutrition Expert from Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is the author of many nutritional strategies for different breeds and a member of some Pet Food development teams. His Maine Coon Stephan, as you might guess, is always well-fed.

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