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We love our cats endlessly, and we’ll never forget them, no matter how much time has passed. We store those treasured memories in our heads forever! Whenever we feel sad or miss our furry friends, we can replay those fond moments in our brains and relive the experience together.
Anyone planning to leave the cat might be wondering how cat memory works. Will your cat remember you after a two-week holiday? How about spending a month with a sitter? Or are cats’ brains well-developed enough for them to remember you after a year or more?
In this article, I look at how cats’ memories work and the sort of thing they remember (spoiler: their owners are up there!). But will your cat remember you after one year? Keep reading to find out whether your cat will remember you, miss you, or forget you!
How Do Cats’ Memories Work?
Much scientific research looks into how cats remember events and the ways in which their memories are processed. Like humans, some cats naturally have better memories than others. But overall, cats are a lot smarter than most people think!
Studies show that cats store memories in a similar way to us. They have both short-term and long-term memories that rely on different neural pathways. Here is a closer look at these two types of memory storage and the information stored in each.
Short-Term Memory in Cats
Also known as working memory, short-term memory is the information stored to facilitate current actions or near-future events. For example, in humans, remembering what you logged into your e-mail to check is stored in your short-term memory. You need to quickly and easily be able to retrieve this information to carry out the task you’re performing.
Cats don’t need to check emails, remember telephone numbers, or recall recent conversations. However, they do rely on working memory when solving problems. It can help them navigate their environment and make essential decisions linked with survival.
For example, cats use their short-term memory to store information like where they hunted earlier that night. This ensures they won’t waste their time returning to the same spot. Similarly, when hiding an object from your cat, their ability to recall where it is located gradually decreases with time.
However, cats’ short-term memory is not as strong as ours. Some research indicates cats can only store information in their working memory for ten minutes. Others show short-term memory lasts for around sixteen hours after experiencing the event.
This generally depends on the type of information in question – the more important the knowledge is, the longer it will be stored successfully. The way that cats acquire information also changes the length of storage. For cats, memories relating to movement and position are retained for longer than those gained through sight alone.
Long-Term Memory in Cats
As you might have guessed, long-term memory refers to information stored for extended periods. The information stored here is generally not as readily recalled compared to short-term memory. However, the knowledge is stored somewhere in the brain and is retrievable at will if and when the situation arises where this information is needed.
While working memory helps carry out more immediate tasks, long-term memory builds the foundation from which other decisions come. For example, cats know which areas are best for hunting or which neighbors have dogs lurking in the backyards.
So, what information makes it into the long-term memory of cats? Is there a trigger for the formation of memories? According to the experts, only events that cause extreme positive or negative emotions make it into the long-term memory of our pets. Those related to food, survival, and emotional impact are all potential candidates for long-term memory storage.
Therefore, cats do remember their owners! Your bond with your pet elicits plenty of positive emotional impact your cat stores in their long-term memory. Cats also rely on their owners for survival – for food, water, and shelter – so they have double the reason to store this information long-term.
Unfortunately, fears are another example of long-term memories in cats – these fears come from a traumatic experience stored in the long-term memory. Traumatized cat symptoms result from a trigger activating this memory in the brain and causing feelings of stress comparable to those felt at the time of the initial event.
How Long Before Cats Forget Their Owners?
We’ve established that cats store memories of their owners as long-term memories. But exactly how long can cats recall the information stored here? Will your cat remember you forever? Is leaving cats alone for four days long enough to make them forget? And do cats get lonely without you there?
Unfortunately, it is impossible to put a precise timeframe on long-term memory storage in cats. The good news is that long-term memories are definitely stored longer than short-term memories. As mentioned, some studies found cats held short-term memories for up to sixteen hours. So your cat is going to remember you for at least this long.
If you leave your cat for a week-long vacation, you can be pretty sure you’ll be remembered. Even two weeks or an entire month away, your kitty should recognize your sight, smell, voice, and behavior. But will your cat remember you after one year? Even after this long apart, the answer is likely yes!
Scientists believe cats have pretty strong memories, and there are many stories of cats remembering their owners after spending years and years apart. They might not run up to give you a cuddle (after all, that’s not very cat-like behavior), but they’ll probably know who you are. However, this largely depends on your relationship with your cat and subsequent events after your departure.
What Factors Affect Memory Storage in Cats?
As mentioned, most cats will remember their owners after a year apart. If you’re going away for an extended period, don’t panic!
Your cat will likely remember you, and I am living proof!
I recently spent several months away and, much to my surprise, found my cat so affectionate all of a sudden on my return home. I thought I’d find my cat attacking me all of a sudden as she viewed me as a stranger. But no – she clearly missed me and was more loving than ever. If this doesn’t prove cats remember their owners, I don’t know what does!
With that said, all cats have different strength memories. Certain factors also affect long-term memory storage and may affect how well your feline friend remembers you. I look at each of these factors below and explain their link to recalling memories and memory loss.
Cats solidify memories that are fuelled with emotion. Therefore, cats are more likely to remember their owners if they’ve had many happy memories. The more you play together, snuggle in the evenings, or brush your cat’s gorgeous coat, the more likely it’ll have a fond memory of you! Cats do have a sense of humor, and they’ll remember all the good times vividly.
Unfortunately, the converse is also true – owners who abuse their pets have elicited a negative emotional response. This is just as imprinting as positive events, and trauma can cause life-long fears and damaging effects our cats struggle to leave in the past.
Spatial vs. Visual Memory
Do you know how to get a cat to come home at night? You might need to lure them with food initially, so they learn when their curfew is. However, cats will soon be able to make the journey with ease and return home safely through their microchip cat flaps.
This is because cats have incredible spatial memory – in other words, memories that relate to the movement or positioning of the body. On the other hand, cats’ visual memories are not as easy to recall. That isn’t to say cats don’t store visual memories, but that failure to interact with an object physically makes things harder to remember.
Therefore, the more physical interaction with your cat (especially in relation to feeding), the more easily they can remember you after a time apart. This also illustrates nicely that video-calling your cat while you’re away won’t help their memory formation. Their memories of you are based more on spatial aspects, and chatting over video won’t make much difference to memory consolidation.
Age and Cognitive Decline
The more time you have building a relationship with your cat, the easier it is for them to remember you – be it after a vacation or an entire year apart. Any pet parent that has owned their cat from kittenhood is unlikely to forget their owner. The more time together, the better when it comes to memory formation and recollection.
However, memory does slowly start to deteriorate with age. Nearly 30% of all cats aged 11 to 14 show signs of cognitive dysfunction. This cognitive decline worsens with age, with 80% of cats ages 16 or over. Therefore, senior cats are less likely to remember their owners.
Below are some of the most common signs of feline cognitive dysfunction:
- Excessively meowing or crying without reasons
- Urinating or defecating outside the litter box
- Behavioral changes (either more clingy or aggressive)
- Changes in their usual sleeping patterns
- Signs of confusion or disorientation
- Wondering aimlessly around the house
- Falling over more frequently
- Your cat sleeping all day and not eating
It is important to remember that cognitive decline doesn’t just impact the memories they hold of their owners; it also affects the short-term and long-term storage of all information. As such, you should speak to your vet if you suspect your cat suffers from age-related decline. There is no cure, but they can advise you on how to manage symptoms best.
Finally, the events that have unfolded since you left your cat can impact their memory of you. Cats’ brains have a maximum memory capacity. When their memory storage becomes full, they start writing over old memories and replacing them with new ones.
However, cats only write over the information no longer deemed relevant. For example, imagine you got a new credit card with a new PIN. Each time you use your card and enter the new PIN, the old one is erased more and more from your memory. The same is true with zip codes, telephone numbers, and other similar information.
Cats don’t use credit cards or zip codes, but the point still stands! Your cat may begin to write over your happy memories together if they form more happy memories with someone else. They have new memories that are more important to their current decision-making, so their memories of you may fade into the background.
But don’t panic just yet – evidence suggests these memories don’t truly disappear, nor are they permanently forgotten. They just become less relevant and cannot be recalled as easily. Your cat might need their memory jogging to remember you, but your arrival home will surely do the trick! Once they see you, their memories will likely come flooding back.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
Many owners ask, “Will my cat remember me after one year?” According to research, the answer is yes! Whether you go on vacation for a week, two weeks, a month, two months, or an entire trip around the sun, your cat will probably remember you.
This is because memories of owners are stored in cats’ long-term memories; they have the potential to remember you for an eternity! However, how well your cat does remember you depends on several factors. This includes the closeness of your relationship, time spent together, physical interaction, and your kitty’s age when you’re reunited.
Like humans, cats also write over their memories in exchange for more important information. As such, cats’ memories of their owners do fade over time. The longer you spend apart, the more time your cat has to gain new information and experiences that could replace yours.
However, long-term memories are never erased completely! You’ll be surprised by how many cats remember their owners, even after several years apart.