Do Cats Remember People? All Signs Point to Yes
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My husband and I once fostered a cat, Pippin, for a few weeks until a friend adopted him. In the infrequent times we've seen him since—my husband is actually allergic to cats—Pippin always runs up to greet both of us, rubbing our legs, wanting pats, and purring. Of course, we're absolutely overjoyed by his reaction.
Do cats remember people? And if so, how—and why? Mary Molloy, CPDT-KA, is an animal behavior consultant with Behavior Vets of NYC and says although there's a lack of research on this topic, there's still strong reason to believe that, yes, cats remember us through associative memory and their senses.
How Do Cats Remember People?
Cats have working, short-term, and long-term memory like other animals (and humans). Molloy says one possible explanation for how long cats remember people centers on specific things people might have done to cats or near them.
For example, your cat might not remember a guest who visits but doesn't like cats and, thus, didn't interact with them. So while kitty notices someone else is in his environment, if the person didn't affect him, his short-term memory disregards the experience after a few hours and moves on.
"What gets stored in long-term memory is likely to be things that directly affect fulfillment of the cat's needs—such as food, warmth, physical comfort, and so on—as those affect their survival," Molloy says.
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She adds that cats learn primarily by association through both classical and operant conditioning:
Positive reinforcement classical conditioning is a technique used to train cats.
Operant conditioning results in a consequence—either positive or negative—in response to certain behavior.
"Something associated with a consequence that impacts survival also gets stored in long-term memory," Molloy explains. "It makes sense that anything the cat found particularly pleasurable—or unpleasant—could be stored there as well."
Some research indicates cats also respond to working memories of both visual and olfactory signals. One key study involves mother cats whose offspring recognize them by body odor long after separation. "So it's likely that smell, hearing, and sight all contribute to the memory of an individual," Molloy says.
These senses might be more reliable than cats remembering faces—but until we can ask our feline pals for clarification, it's a mystery.
Why Do Cats Remember Their Owners?
Currently there's more research data that outlines what dogs remember, but we're making headway on our understanding of feline cognition and owner relationships. Research like this helps dispel myths that cats are simply our semi-tolerant overlords.
RELATED: Do Cats Love Their Owners? Here's How to Tell
For example, "one study shows that cats responded more to their owner's voices than those of strangers'," Molloy says. This study's findings, released in 2013, prompted interest in the theory that cats recognize and become attached to their owners in various ways. A more recent study also examined when pet parents use both baby talk and regular voices to talk with their cats. Kitties not only seem to understand and react, but they're also are aware their humans are speaking directly to them.
Researchers at the Human-Animal Interaction Lab at Oregon State University point to results from their 2019 cat-owner attachment study that indicates most cats rely on their humans as a source of security and comfort. This is good news because "while we need more research on this, secure attachment is driven, at least in part, by the memory of associations the cat has made with the person," Molloy explains.
Create More Happy Memories With Your Cat
Just like humans, cats are prone to developing cognitive decline and dementia as they age, but you have plenty of time to build an unforgettable, loving relationship with your kitty.
"Since a great deal of cat learning is associative, and cats remember those associations, it makes sense that the more things you do with the cat that gives them pleasure of any kind, the stronger that positive association with you becomes," Molloy says. "And the more it's remembered."
Proper socialization helps your kitty make non-threatening connections with different scents, sounds, and experiences. Additionally, engaging interaction with your cat not only sparks his mental and physical engagement, but it also affirms your valuable bond. Here are some ideas:
Respect your kitty's boundaries and learn how they want affection.
Pay attention to their individual communication, such as their different noises, tail wags, and other behaviors (like following you around).
We weren't joking about training. He's capable of learning amazing tricks, and you can share even more adventures by teaching him to walk on a leash to enjoy safe, outdoor stimulation.
Play with him every day using novel interactive toys and games.