How Good is a Cat's Memory?

Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle suggested that "many animals have memory and are capable of instruction, but no other animal except man can recall the past at will."

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And throughout the ages, with little research that disproves this theory, the hypothesis has held: animals do not have personal awareness, thus cannot recall the past, and live only in the moment. In a nutshell, this means that after about the age of four, we have what is known as episodic memory and can time travel cognitively from the present moment, or contextualize time, traveling backward or forward at our whim, while animals cannot. Linked to personal awareness, or autonoetic consciousness, episodic memory, a phrase coined in 1972 by Dr. Endel Tulving, is what separates humans from all others in the animal kingdom.

But why, then, does your cat remember you feed her first thing every morning, give her a treat mid-morning, a belly rub after dinner, and cuddle watching TV in the evening? You know she remembers because any variation of this routine is met with her disapproval. She also has her favorite people who visit and ignores others. So clearly she remembers people and events and seems entirely aware of time. Are these just instinctual connections or do cats have memories? As a cat owner, the theory that cats live only in the moment may be challenged on a daily basis.

Is episodic memory unique to humans?

Delving deep into the psyches of our pets is a hot topic today with companion animals regarded as members of our families. It would be heartwarming to know that he is reflecting on sweet memories as he blissfully basks in a sunny window, or indeed if he has a sense of time at all. And while we're pretty sure our cats are not planning their futures, do they even remember yesterday? Or do they operate solely according to their internal clock, or natural rhythms, as they move through different states of being?

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Over the years, several prominent philosophers and psychologists have addressed the question of cognitive time travel in animals. According to Endel Tulving, a neuroscientist and psychologist whose theories have provided the foundation of the understanding of human memory -- animals live in the moment. Does this mean your cat is stuck in time? Or could cats and dogs, too, have a treasure trove of memories they draw upon to supplement their instincts that are yet undiscovered?

Whether or not an animal possesses enough awareness of self and conception of time to construct an episodic memory is a widely debated issue across the board and certainly more studies on the subject will be forthcoming in the future.

Homing instinct versus memory

Linda Cole at Canidae declares, "Researchers think they understand a dog or cat's memory, but their science isn't exact and more studies need to be done." Cole questions the memory theory in light of amazing stories about cats returning home after being lost for years and traveling miles to get back. She hints that memory of their owner, another pet, or a familiar place drives them onward.

Or is it a cat's homing instinct that brings them back? Cats' uncanny perception of direction is due to some thus far unknown sixth sense that has mystified scientists, veterinarians, and animal behaviorists for years. As early as 1922, studies have shown this remarkable homing ability of cats, and theories abound, from electromagnetic fields to olfactory clues. But until more studies lead to a definitive answer, is it possible that memory could be the impetus, or at least partly responsible for the phenomenon? After all, only two published studies— the study from 1922 and another from 1954— exist.

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Semantic memory

According to Dr. Tulving, most mammals including humans and birds can build complex sets of knowledge or semantic memory, but people remember having learned it, while animals don't. For example, from black-capped chickadees recovering their seed caches after a season to squirrels digging up their long-buried nuts, all animals have semantic memory, which is essential for their survival. Tulving believes that episodic memory evolved from semantic memory, therefore, semantic memory is a prerequisite for episodic memory. And he believes that animals have semantic memory but that they do not have episodic memory.

Spatial memory

Spatial memory is also essential for the survival of animals in the wild as it involves locating and remembering where food, water, mates, and predators are within their habitat. Your cat uses spatial memory every day to function and navigate her territory. She must find the food and water bowls, the litter box, toys, and even you when she's seeking out some affection.

Long-term and short-term memory

Memories are created in us all by physical and mental experiences, and in addition to spatial memory, cats also have short-term memories and long-term memories, explains Dr. Brian Hare, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Powerful, impactful events, both positive and negative, will primarily influence which memories are stored long-term and these can last indefinitely. For instance, the long-term memory of a cat who may have suffered abuse by an owner in her past may be triggered when she sees a person with a similar appearance, such as a woman wearing a hat, or a tall man with a beard.

Another example of long-term memory you may have experienced with your cat is when you return from a vacation, and although less excitable than a dog, if a cat could do backflips she would. Cats form strong bonds with their people and remember them, even after many years have passed as witnessed by those who have lost cats that returned many years later.

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Cats' memory and brain function

Overall, a cat's brain functions at the level of a two- to -three-year-old child, and is almost 200 times more retentive than a dog's memory, says Second Opinion. To put that in perspective, a dog's memory span is about five minutes unless a lesson or command is continually repeated and reinforced. In tests, cats' memory span averaged about 16 hours and only when the activity involved in the test benefited them in some way.

So, bottom line, cats do have a good memory, and it may be even better than we think!