Do cats remember people?
First, here’s an amazing story about cats and memory:
In 2016, an animal hospital in Connecticut took in a sick, injured, elderly cat that a Good Samaritan had found sitting alone in a parking lot. Veterinarians nursed Billy back to health and he became the practice’s mascot.
Fast forward three years. A father and daughter – new clients to the practice – visited the hospital and noted that the office cat looked very similar to their Batuffolo, who’d wandered off three years earlier.
As if on cue, Billy jumped up onto the counter, and leapt into the arms of the surprised pair. Office staff said that while the cat was usually friendly to visitors, he was never that friendly.
Father and daughter shared details about Batuffolo’s usual behaviors, such as the way he liked to scoop water up with a paw, to confirm his identity. The deal was sealed when the family brought in their other cat, Batuffolo’s littermate, Cotone, and the two cats recognized each other immediately.
(P.S. This is an object lesson in why loving cat guardians should get their cats microchipped.)
What is memory?
Simply put, memory is the process of taking in information, holding onto it, and recalling it later.
Memory is essential to human life. Without it, we couldn’t learn anything. If we had no ability to retrieve information from the past, we couldn’t function in the present, or plan for the future.
Animals rely on their memory for survival. They need it, for example, to make decisions about where to hunt for food. A study involving red-footed tortoises showed that they relied on memory that went back at least 18 months to help them find their favorite foods, and locations with the most food. Tortoises!
Short-term memory versus long-term memory in cats
Speaking very generally, there are two kinds of memory: short-term memory and long-term memory. Humans have both kinds of memory, and so do cats and many other species of animals.
Short-term memory is what we use when we’re trying to remember a phone number right before we dial it, or when we’re reaching into the refrigerator to retrieve an ingredient for a recipe we just read. It’s memory that, as the name implies, doesn’t last long.
Short-term memory in cats allows a cat to remember where you just tossed her favorite mouse toy with the leather tail.
Long-term memory is where most of the information that we have collected over time is stored. It’s where we remember our first day of kindergarten, how to knit, and the names of our neighbors.
Long-term memory allows a cat to remember things he learned long ago, like what a litterbox is for.
Long-term memory is what we are asking about when we want to know whether cats remember people.
But first, a quick word about short-term memory and cats
Animals, in general, have very poor short-term memory, especially compared to humans. Even apes have no better short-term memory than rats.
Studies show that cats don’t have particularly well-developed short-term memories. In one experiment, 24 cats watched while researchers hid an object in one of four boxes. The cats were asked to wait 0, 10, 30, or 60 seconds before being allowed to find the object. After 30 seconds, most cats had trouble finding it.
What explains this?
A good short-term memory probably isn’t all that useful to cats (or to other animals). If a cat is chasing a mouse in the wild, for example, and the mouse darts behind a rock, the odds aren’t great that the mouse will still be there a whole minute later.
In other words, there is no evolutionary advantage to cats of having a well-developed short-term memory.
Do cats have a good long-term memory?
Scientists believe that cats have excellent long-term memory and suspect that they can recall events for at least 10 years. But research is sorely lacking to prove it.
There was one fairly recent study that attempted to determine whether cats have episodic memory, which is a kind of long-term memory.
Episodic memory is what we humans refer to when we remember not just an event or set of facts, but the details of the event, the context of the event, and the emotions associated with the event. Think about your first kiss. It’s likely an episodic memory.
The study involved 49 cats who were shown four bowls with food in them. They were allowed to eat from only two of the bowls. The cats were made to wait for 15 minutes while the bowls were switched out with empty bowls. The cats were then allowed to check out all four empty bowls.
The cats, universally, explored the bowls they had not eaten from the longest, as if they were looking for food they expected to be there.
In the second half of the experiment, only two of the bowls contained food, a third was empty, and a fourth contained an inedible object. The cats were allowed to eat from one of the bowls.
When they returned to the room with four now-empty bowls, they explored the one bowl that “should” have had food in it, the longest.
Both parts of this experiment proved to researchers that cats remember and retrieve details about what they experience. This is an indication that cats might enjoy episodic memories, like humans. 
Experiencing episodic memories means that it might be possible for cats to call up memories on demand, for pleasure, like humans do when we’re remembering a special vacation, or the day we got married.
How about a cat’s memory when it comes to their people?
The thing about the food-bowl experiment described above is that it involved food. Certified behavioral consultant and psychology doctoral candidate Mikel Delgado pointed out that the study only confirmed that cats are pretty good at remembering things for a relatively short period of time when food is involved. 
A very recent study about cats and memory explored the question of “social-spatial cognition,” which is the way an animal remembers the whereabouts of others.
In this study, a cat was placed in a room with an audio speaker. There was also an audio speaker outside the room.
The sound of the owner calling the cat’s name was played through one speaker, and the sound of a stranger calling the cat’s name was played through the other. When they switched speakers, and the owner’s voice now seemed to be coming from a different place, the cats appeared to be very surprised.
But when the scientists switched the stranger’s voice to different speaker, or played other sounds that weren’t the owner’s voice, the cats didn’t seem to notice.
The conclusion of this study was that cats’ memory is strongly connected to the whereabouts of their owners.
My heart just grew a few sizes thinking about that.
What determines what a cat will remember and for how long?
Each individual cat acquires memories throughout his life, through observation, experiences, and trial and error. But what determines what he remembers, and for how long?
Certified Cat Behavior Consultant Dusty Rainbolt, reported that Cosmo, her one-year-old Siamese mix, had always cooperated when she trimmed his nails - until she accidentally pinched a toe with the clippers. For the next 13 years, he hid whenever she took those nail clippers out again.
Although it hasn’t been studied, the general consensus of scientists is that the length of time a memory is retained is related to the impact the event had on the cat when the memory was first formed. Memories with strong emotional content tend to be remembered longer.
Other factors that might impact whether, and how long, a memory is retained, include the cat’s relationships with humans, her individual intelligence, and age.
Do cats’ memories fade over time?
Scientists believe that the accuracy of memories could decline for cats over time, just like in humans. But if it does, it probably has less to do with age than with other factors. Cats don’t seem to have the same kind of age-related memory decline that other species – including humans and dogs – have.
A fascinating experiment was performed with 75 cats of varying ages. Cats were shown a board with 30 holes. All the holes smelled like food, but only three holes actually had food in them. Cats were “asked” to remember which holes contained food.
Old cats, young cats, and cats of all ages in between, performed equally well on this memory test. They all did the task equally quickly and made the same number of mistakes.
These results were completely unexpected. Researchers concluded that cats don’t experience the same age-related mental declines that other animal species do. 
That being said, some older cats can develop a disease called Feline Cognitive Dysfunction (FCD) that is similar to Alzheimer’s Disease in humans. This devastating disease is the result of denegerative changes in a cat’s brain, that causes affected cats to become disoriented, to interact less with their family, experience disturbed sleep, and even “forget” their litterbox training.
So, do cats remember people?
Ah, if only we knew the minds of our cats.
But we don’t. And science has only begun to help us out in understanding what, and for how long, cats remember.
It’s encouraging to know that cats have long memories, especially for events and experiences that have had an emotional impact on them. It’s also heartwarming to know that they are tuned into us, and where we are in their world.
So, if you have a warm, loving, and secure relationship with your cat, you probably don’t have to worry about going away to college, or on a long vacation. Your cat, with whom you have bonded very strongly, has also bonded with you, and will most certainly remember you.
Just ask Batuffalo’s family.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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