Imagine this: you are preparing to spend your summer vacation in another country to visit some family. You pack everything you need, and then you see your cat watching you sitting on top of your suitcase. Since she cannot come along, she will be left at home with your roommate for 2 months. A thought crosses your mind, will she miss you? Will she still recognize you when you get back after two months?
Will your cat still remember your face?
Cat Memory: Long-Term Memory and Short-Term Memory
When we think about “memories”, what comes into our heads is one’s ability to recall certain events, places, people, and procedures among other things that we have experienced at least once in the past. While the answer is yes, cats can remember your face after a long period of time, it is important to note that cats store memories in a different manner the way humans do.
Short-term memory (sometimes called working memory) is the recalling of information after a short period of time, perhaps a few minutes, hours, or maybe a day, until ultimately forgetting it when it is no longer relevant or of any use. For cats however, their short-term memory works a little differently. Cats were found to be able to hold information for up to 16 hours, which is significantly more than your average animal short-term memory span of 25 seconds.
Cats’ short-term memory plays a crucial element in their survival instincts, giving them the ability to remember locations abundant with prey, shelter, or danger. This also includes certain times of the day where food may be abundant, or when danger is apparent. Just like humans, enough rehearsal and exposure to the information can result in storage in long-term memory.
When a piece or set of information is rehearsed and repeated enough, it would then get encoded into one’s long-term memory. Humans have episodic memory, which is the ability to recall specific information such as our parents’ phone numbers, the names of our loved ones, or maybe where we celebrated our last birthday party. Cats, in contrast, have associative memory, which involves recalling memories or information in association with past experiences, be it positive or negative.
Because of cats’ associative memory, long-term memory plays a vital role in a cat’s behavior. Cats associate certain things with positive or negative experiences in the past and can store information for up to 10 years! Although cats indeed have a lengthy long-term memory span, they are incredibly selective with the information they store, choosing ones that are generally beneficial to them.
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Cats Remembering People
Compared to dogs, cats actually have a long-term memory that is 200 times bigger than the long-term memory of dogs! But due to the cat’s selectivity in the memories that they retain, dogs have a better ability in remembering people and their faces mainly due to the longer association with humans rather than brain power. Regardless, cats indeed remember people’s faces.
Just like the other things they store in their long-term memory; cats associate the humans in their lives with positive or negative experiences that they have experienced. Perhaps they remember one person’s face because this person provides them with food, and then another person’s face because of how often he gives pets and cuddles. As these are stored in their long-term memory, a person’s face can be stored and remembered for up to 10 years!
People can also be remembered by cats by associating them with negative experiences, maybe at one point a person hurt the cat or maybe took her food away. Cats are known to hold grudges because of this reason. The cat may behave differently toward this person by exhibiting aggressive behavior or by avoiding the person entirely, all due to the association of the person’s face with negative experiences.
Do Cats Miss Their Owners?
A cat’s change in behavior in the absence of their owner may be mistaken by the cat missing the person, but this is not entirely the case. Changes in behavior would include maybe excessive fawning, destroying of furniture, or relieving itself in inappropriate areas of the house. Cats are naturally anxious creatures, and their anxiety being left alone is often mistaken for missing their owner. Although cats do not actually miss their humans, that does not mean they are not happy in their presence.
Cats’ method of storing information in both their short-term and long-term memories are different compared to humans, but they are still able to encode and retain information through association.
With their lengthened long-term memory span, cats can remember a person’s face for up to 10 years. Because of their associative memory, it is important to share pleasant experiences with your cats to ensure that they remember you in a positive manner.
Featured Image Credit: Eliz A, Shutterstock