Do Cats Have Good Memory?

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
By Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Feb. 23, 2024
A cat sits with his family member by a window.

portishead1/E+ via Getty Images

In This Article

Do Cats Have Memories?

Cats are known to be intelligent animals, and their ability to remember things contributes to this. A cat’s memory is linked to their survival skills and helps them to withstand and adapt to their environment.

Key Takeaways

  • A cat’s memory can affect their behaviors and reactions to people.
  • Cats have memories of both good and bad times.
  • Cats have a great ability to store memories, but their ability to do so decreases over time as they age.

Do Cats Have Memories?

Studies indicate that cats have both long-term and short-term memory, like dogs and humans. A cat’s memory may work very similarly to that of dogs and humans, as they use past experiences to remember things. Memory originates from an area of a cat’s brain called the hippocampus.

Research shows that 50 cats could remember which bowl contained food even after the cats were removed from the area for 15 minutes. This suggests that cats have short-term working memory, especially when food is involved.

Another study revealed that cats have spatial memory, as proven by their ability to remember what cups they had already eaten from when other half-eaten cups from other cats were present as well.

How Good Is a Cat’s Memory?

Short-term memory, or working memory, in cats can be used to help them solve problems, such as using their innate skills to hunt for food either in the wild or in the home.

A study of animal cognition was conducted in 2006 and showed that cats use their short-term memory to find objects hidden from them. However, this study also demonstrated that as time went on, their ability to find these objects decreased.

Long-term memory in cats recalls things they were exposed to as kittens that continue to influence their behavior and reactions as they mature. This can be illustrated by a cat not liking a certain person or place based on being mistreated in the past by similar factors. A cat who is skittish is using their long-term memory when they are triggered by certain noises, for example.

Episodic memory is a form of long-term memory where cats remember specific events in detail. This allows cats to recall both the “what” and the “where” when investigating scenarios, especially surrounding food.

Episodic memory is a type of associative memory, meaning it allows for the linking of specific events or experiences with contextual details such as time, place, and emotional significance. Food is not only necessary to sustain life, but it also plays a central role in triggering important memories.

How Long Can Cats Hold Memories?

Like most animal species, including humans, cats have a great ability to store memories, but their ability to do so decreases over time as they age.

Although difficult to assess, it’s thought that cats hold on to memories for their lifetime—up to 15–20 years in some cases.

What Do Cats Remember?

Cats have an excellent memory, both short- and long-term, so there’s no need to fret when going away on a trip for the first time. You don’t have to worry that your cat won’t remember you when you come back from your travels, though they might give you the silent treatment when you get home!

While limited studies have been done, they have shown that a cat’s memory is best when attached to a strong emotion. This emotion could be from the love they share with their family or even the role food plays in making their belly happy.

Emotions can also be associated with negative experiences, such as abuse or neglect. In this case, cats adopted years after these negative circumstances might use these bad memories to associate people with pain. This can cause a cat to be less trusting, skittish, or even reactive toward those experiences that jog negative memories.

While limited studies have been done, they have shown that a cat’s memory is best when attached to a strong emotion.

Painful or stressful events and places can also trigger a memory that causes your cat to not be on their best behavior at the vet’s office. If this is the case, consider finding a veterinarian who uses Fear Free™ techniques to help your cat adjust.

Do Cats Remember Being a Kitten?

Research suggests that cats do remember being a kitten. A study conducted on a group of mother cats and their offspring revealed that kittens remember their mama cat through her voice. A behavioral response was noticed in kittens after hearing their mother’s chirping and meowing, as opposed to when they hear those sounds from a cat who is not their mother.

It is thought that cats remember their littermates for up to two years through their scent and from the bond that was made during kittenhood.

Cats who were with their littermates less than two to three months as kittens often have fewer memories than those cats who were with their littermates until adulthood, around 1 year of age. The longer a cat was with their littermates, the more memories they have with them. This is a demonstration of long-term memory.

Can Cats Remember Good and Bad Memories?

Cats have memories of both good and bad times. These memories are often formed using scent and their associative memory.

There are two types of associative memory, episodic and semantic, and cats are known to have the former. Episodic memory aids cats in remembering things like meeting their new family after adoption or recalling events from a previous traumatic experience.

Cat marking, such as with urine or rubbing up on something, leaves their scent around, which can help them remember associated people, places, and things in the future.

Can a Cat’s Memory Affect Their Behavior?

A cat’s memory can affect their behaviors and reactions to people. A cat who has had trauma or abuse in the past will associate that bad feeling with people. They use that association to display bad behaviors even in a new home, with a new family.

These behaviors can range from hiding and not interacting to not eating or being reactive toward people or other animals. You can help your cat to get past this negative association with desensitization training and counterconditioning techniques.

Desensitization involves gradually exposing your cat to the object or event they are fearful of in a nonthreatening manner. Coupled with desensitization, counterconditioning introduces a positive experience—such as offering a tasty treat—when cats are exposed to what frightens them.

A cat’s memory can affect their behaviors and reactions to people.

Loud noises commonly cause fearful behaviors in cats with negative memories. Showing your cat the vacuum when it's off and putting a treat on top of it can demonstrate to them that the vacuum isn't scary—and even has benefits.

Over time, you can try turning the vacuum on around your cat. Give them cat treats and lots of praise so that they associate positive outcomes with the vacuum and no longer fear it.

Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri Morrison was born and raised and currently resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She went to University of Florida for her...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health