How long does a cat hold a grudge?
Instead of coming home straight from work as usual, you went out for drinks with colleagues and came home late. When you return home, your cat snubs you. How long is your cat going to hold this grudge?
While you were away on vacation, your cat started peeing in a corner of the living room to let you know how he felt about your travels. How long is this grudge going to last?
Well, folks, I’ve got to come clean. “How long does a cat hold a grudge?” is a trick question, because I don’t believe cats hold grudges.
There is no scientific evidence that cats are capable of the kind of meta thinking (thinking about their own thoughts) that is required to be able to hold a grudge. And grudging-holding doesn’t seem to offer any survival benefits to cats.
What you are seeing when you think your cat is mad at you and punishing you with a grudge, is probably another cat behavior entirely.
What is a grudge?
Grudge-holding, in humans, is a complicated thing. It usually starts off with a transgression.
It could be a small slight, like if someone neglected to include you on a group text, or made a thoughtless remark that hurt your feelings.
It could be a larger offense, like if someone close to you forgot your birthday, or didn’t invite you to a party you expected to be invited to.
And it could be a much bigger transgression, such as lying to you, or accusing you of something.
The grudge may start with an incident, but it turns into a grudge because the person who committed the infraction didn’t seem to care, and failed to apologize or try to make things right. Or maybe you never told them you were upset at all.
The grudge-holder becomes unable to let go of their anger toward the person who has wronged them. Rumination: thinking, thinking, and thinking about how you were wronged, is a hallmark of a grudge.
Grudges in people can last a lifetime
Deep grudges can last a lifetime, as the grudge, and the “victimhood” it implies, often becomes part of the identity of the person who holds it.
According a survey of 12,000 people around the world, the average person holds seven grudges. Common grudge themes relate to not getting a job, being dumped by a romantic interest, and being on the receiving end of bad customer service.
The average length of a grudge is five years, but 15% of the people surveyed had held a grudge for 11 years or longer.
Grudges require a lot of brain power
Psychologists and researchers are fascinated by the idea of grudges, which, on the surface, seem like “unproductive and irrational” human behavior.
In an effort to understand why people would expend so much brain power and energy to nurse a grudge, they studied the brains of people they “provoked” in an MRI scanner.
They found that an extremely complex interplay between numerous brain regions were involved in holding a grudge. It takes at least five different brain parts, including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the cingulate cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, the lateral prefrontal cortex, and the insula, to form and hold a grudge.
It made researchers suspect that there must be something useful, or some kind of survival benefit to grudges for people.
One current theory is that grudges are a way for people to evaluate the benefit of seeking revenge against someone who has harmed them, versus maintaining a beneficial relationship with that person.
But this probably doesn’t apply to cats.
Cat brains are not like human brains
This research suggests that holding a grudge requires a very complex cognitive system.
Cats, with all their wonderful qualities, are just not as cognitively and emotionally sophisticated as their human guardians.
Cats might not need to hold grudges
The other thing about cats is that they probably don’t have the same need as humans to hold a grudge.
They’re just not as social as people, and they don’t resolve conflicts with others in the same way that we do.
Cats, in fact, have whole systems in place to just avoid conflict. If a grudge is a method for deciding whether to seek revenge or maintain a relationship with somebody, cats don’t need it.
Cats keep their distance to avoid conflict
One example of how cats avoid conflict is their use of scent to mark territory.
Cats are solitary hunters. They’re not looking to run into other cats, or to fight with other cats, while they’re out trying to making a living.
Humans, who use language and facial expressions to communicate, need to be up close and personal with each other. But scent allows cats to “talk” to one another from far away.
Scent-marking a hunting territory is like leaving a notice on a bulletin board. It’s a message that says, “I’m over here hunting. You stay over there.”
(Read, "Why do cats spray or mark with urine?")
Cats just don’t have use for holding grudges. It’s just not how they interact with others.
Cats have an excellent associative memory
Associative memory is the ability to remember the relationship between unrelated things. When the smell of freshly baked bread makes you think of your grandmother’s kitchen, you’re using associative memory.
Cats have great associative memories. That’s why Zazie Todd, author of Purr The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, says cats are so easy to train, even if they have a reputation for being difficult to train.
In fact, we’re training our cats all the time, whether we know it or not. Cats learn, for example, that when they sit on our laps, we’ll pet them, and cats who enjoy petting will come and sit on our laps more often. That’s associative memory.
(Read, "How to pet a cat.")
If you want to train your cat to come when called, you can take advantage of their terrific associative memory: call your cat and offer a treat if they come trotting over. Eventually, they’ll associate the treat with the command you used to call them over.
Associative memory can look like a grudge
But associative memory can work the other way, too.
If you accidentally step on your cat’s tail, she might temporarily avoid you. She’s associating the nearness of your feet with pain in her tail. Her strong associative memory tells her, “Stay away from those dangerous feet.”
You, however, interpret this behavior through the lens of a human being. You think, “I stepped on her tail and now she’s holding a grudge against me.”
What is the difference between an associative memory and a grudge?
How is this any different from a grudge?
The ability to form an association between a negative event and a consequence is a protective mechanism. Thank goodness cats have this capability, or they never would have survived the ages.
Grudges, on the other hand, are most often unproductive. There’s a saying about grudges, that holding one is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Why does it matter whether cats are actually holding a grudge?
For one thing, being on the receiving end of a grudge doesn’t feel good. Feeling the resentment of another can be distressing. We may wonder if what we did was really wrong, and then feel unable to fix the problem.
The other reason it matters whether your cat is holding a grudge or not, is because the assumption that it’s a grudge prevents you for getting to the real root of the problem.
If you come home from vacation to find cat pee in a corner, and assume it’s a grudge, you won’t go looking for the real reason your cat is not using the litter box. Many of the possible reasons for peeing outside the litter box can be serious.
(Read, “Why is my cat peeing on my bed?)
And finally, understanding the true motivation behind a cat’s behavior can be enlightening. Perhaps the reason your cat “snubbed” you after a late worknight is because you came home smelling like the bar, and not like your office. Maybe, he just didn’t know it was you.
Getting better at seeing the world through your cat’s eyes is the key to knowing her better, and to forming a deeper bond with her.
And who wouldn’t want that?
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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.
 Drevitch, Gary. “Why We Hold Grudges, and How to Let Them Go.” Psychology Today, 4 Feb. 2015, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inviting-monkey-tea/201503/why-we-hold-grudges-and-how-let-them-go.
 “The Average Adult Is Currently Harbouring Seven Grudges, Trustpilot Research Reveals - Trustpilot Newsroom.” Trustpilot, press.trustpilot.com/helping-hands-global-press-release. Accessed 20 June 2023.
 Subramaniam, Ph.D., Aditi. “To Forgive or Not to Forgive.” Psychology Today, 13 Dec. 2020, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/parenting-neuroscience-perspective/202012/forgive-or-not-forgive.
 “Associative Memory (Psychology).” Wikipedia, 15 Sept. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Associative_memory_(psychology).
 Berger, Marcia Naomi. “Is Someone Holding a Grudge against You?” Psych Central, 29 Apr. 2020, psychcentral.com/blog/is-someone-holding-a-grudge-against-you#1.