Maybe you’re about to adopt a rescue cat, or maybe your cat is getting older and you’re noticing some behavioral changes. If you find yourself wondering ‘do cats have a good memory?’ then we have the answers for you!
Cats have consistently been found to perform well on tests of long- and short-term memory as well as basic intelligence tests. They can remember the humans who care for them, where they live, and any good or bad experiences in their lives.
Here, we dive into the fascinating topic of cat memory. We’ll cover how memory changes over a cat’s lifespan, any problems a cat may have with its memory, and how a cat’s experience may affect its behavior. Ready? Let’s go!
Do Cats Have Good Memory?
Memory is a complicated brain function and includes several different types including object permanence (more on that later), process, short-, and long-term memory. It’s difficult to test all of these memory types in a cat, but research has found that cats have a very complex and well-formed ability to create and recall memories.
One type of memory is recall – most cats show very good recall memory, meaning that they can learn something and remember it several years later. For example, if you always shake the treat container before giving them a treat, even many years later the cat will still come running if it hears the sound again.
This shows us that the cat can recall the sound of the treat container, they remember what the sound means and associate it with food. You can see this reaction happening even several years after you last shook that container.
Cats can also modify their memories. For example, if they are always let in and out of the back door, but then you switch to the front door they will be able to adapt their memory and begin using the front door.
Do kittens have a better memory than older cats?
Many animals go through an intensive learning period when they are young. Humans do it, and so do kittens! During this period of life, the brain is working hard to create as many new memories as possible to help the kitten understand how to interact with other cats, how to find food, and how to stay safe. It is during this period that kittens also learn to trust humans.
One of the reasons that feral cats find it so hard to adapt to life as a pet is because they never made the memory that associates people with food and comfort. Of course, it is possible for a feral cat to adjust to the easy life, but it takes longer for him to form the memory that ‘humans = good’.
If the cat has had bad experiences with humans, then it can take an adult much longer to form new memories than it would if it were a kitten.
Do cats get worse memory as they age?
Even cats can’t avoid the inevitable slowing of memory that comes with age. Let’s use the same example of switching from the front to the back door. As your cat ages, they may begin to get confused about which door to use even though many years have passed since they started coming in and out of the front door.
If you notice your aging cat sitting at the back door more often, then maybe their memory is slowing down. This is normal and nothing to worry about!
Can cats get Alzheimer’s?
If your aging cat is getting more confused than usual, then you might be asking yourself if there is something more serious going on. Unfortunately, cats can develop something called feline cognitive dysfunction, or FCD.
FCD is similar to Alzheimer’s disease that humans get and affects all aspects of memory. A cat with FCD may become more disorientated, become uncharacteristically aggressive, and start having bathroom accidents around the house.
There isn’t any treatment for FCD, and it isn’t something that can be officially diagnosed by your veterinarian. But if you suspect your cat is showing signs of FCD you can make things a little easier for them by sticking to a routine and allowing them lots of peace and quiet.
Are cats intelligent?
It’s hard to perform intelligence tests on cats because we can’t assess their verbal communication, reading skills etcetera, but there are ways around this.
We can test a cat’s object permanence: whether they can remember something exists even if they can’t see it. For example, if you show them their favorite toy, will they go and look for it if you put it in a box? If they remember their toy and go to find it, then they are showing object permanence.
However, cats don’t have great cause-effect intelligence. To illustrate this, imagine you hide a treat under a cup. Your cat can quickly learn to tip the cup over and get the treat.
But if you hide a treat under one cup, then add several cups to the line-up, your cat won’t be able to learn which cup has the treat underneath – even if it’s always the same cup.
Do cats remember humans?
The good news is that cats definitely have the ability to remember humans. The bad news is that sometimes they choose to just ignore you. We all know cats can be aloof, especially after you’ve been away, but this isn’t because they’ve forgotten you – they’re annoyed that you left them in the first place.
Research estimates that cats have a much greater ability to recognize different people when compared to dogs. But because cats are typically more independent than dogs, they attach less meaning to the humans in their lives.
One study found that offering a treat in front of a picture of a face, meant that the cat always went back to that picture instead of other, different, faces. This shows us that cats can easily recognize and remember a face, even without the actual person there.
Do cats remember where they live?
If you’ve ever had an outdoor cat, you know that they can go off all day but still find their way home. This is great for cats who like to be independent but can cause problems when a cat is re-homed or if its family moves to a new place.
Often when a newly re-homed cat goes missing it is because they’ve set off to return to their old home and have gotten lost in the process. When you move, or if you have adopted a new cat, you should always keep them indoors for at least a month to make sure they learn and remember where their new home is!
Do cats remember other cats?
Cats can remember other cats, but how well and for how long depends on the interaction they had with the other cat. If they lived alongside this cat for a long time, then they will be able to remember them for a couple of years. If it’s a cat they only met in passing, then they aren’t likely to remember them much at all.
Cats attach a lot of meaning to their memories. If they met another cat and had a fight, or were in a stressful situation, then they will remember the cat and the negative associations of the cat. But if they lived happily alongside the other cat, and they were both looked after and fed well, then they will associate their friend with good things so be much more friendly.
Littermates will have a longer-lasting memory of each other as they have learned to recognize each other’s scent. Even so, if you try to re-unite littermates years after they were split up, you may find they are aggressive at first.
Take any cat introductions slowly. The smoother and calmer the meeting, the more likely your cats will form good memories of each other which helps them to live harmoniously.
Do cats remember bad things that happen to them?
Cats are heavily driven by their instincts which strive to keep them safe. This is why cats will return to places they have been fed and why they avoid places they have been hurt. Unfortunately, this means that cats have a good memory when it comes to remembering unpleasant or traumatic events in their lives.
Sometimes rescue cats can have behavioral problems which take some getting used to. This isn’t because they’re bad cats, but because they are trying to keep themselves safe after a bad experience. It may take them a while to learn that not all humans are bad, but they will learn so stay patient.
So, do cats have a good memory? All the evidence suggests that they do! Kittens have a particularly good memory as they are learning all about the world including which places, people, and things to avoid and which to pursue.
As cats get older their memory may get a little slow, but there are things you can do to make their life easier. Rescue cats may have some behavior problems, but they can learn to make new, happier, memories with you.