Do Cats Remember Their Owners After Years?

As humans, we certainly remember the cats in our lives long after they're gone. The kitten you had as a kid turned into the cat that met you at the gate when you came home from school and followed you to the bathroom. But what happened when you had to say goodbye when you went to college? Do you think the cat missed you or remembered you when you came back months later for a spring break visit?

man and old cat: real Love
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It can be hard to determine how much cats remember and whether they are capable of retaining memories of their owners over the years. When we come home at the end of the day, our cats certainly seem excited to see us. But some of that response may be based on associative memories rather than long-term memories.

Short-term memories in cats

Associative memories are what regulate the ongoing behavior of cats. For instance, they associate the sound of the electric can opener with the act of getting food. Cats will run to the kitchen when they hear the sound of an electric can opener, even if it's not their normal feeding time.

A 2015 study by National Geographic suggests that many animals don't have a short-term memory, but instead can store away information that helps them survive. Unsurprisingly, this often translates to remembering the places where they get food (especially their favorite food) and shelter. In this study, researchers examined 25 species from dolphins to bees and found that the average short-term memory span was only 27 seconds.

Cats do miss us

Beautiful Maine Coon cat loves being taken outdoors by his owner.
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According to Dr. Elizabeth Stelow, an animal behavior researcher, cats do miss their owners but the ways they show that might not be apparent to us. She says cats may not use the litter box when they need to "go," as one example, and its owners are not around, because our absence stresses them.

Another National Geographic researcher says cats are increasingly showing signs of stress, which shows up in skin inflammations and inflammation of the bladder wall. Cat behavior expert John Bradshaw says it's linked to stress hormones in the blood. Perhaps this persistent stress is a sign that our cats don't like it when we're gone?

Or do they?

However, for every study that seems to signify that cats do miss us, there is another that says they don't. The respected journal PLOS One reports that cats do not show signs of secure attachment to their owners. In this study, the researchers attempted to examine the strength of the cat-owner bond by looking at 20 cats and their owners. The study concluded that yes, the cats did vocalize more when the owner left the room as compared to the amount of vocalization they did after a stranger left the room. However, in the view of the researchers, this was not strong enough evidence of a secure attachment. The study went on to say that "alternative methods need to be developed to understand the cat-owner bond."

The researchers were unable to form a conclusion based on the 20 human-pet pairs in this study. But cats have been living alongside humans for thousands of years, so surely they are getting something out of it. Studies show that they experience a greater bond with their owners than they do with a random stranger. The studies also show that cats do experience and display signs of stress. Other studies, as described in the blog of Scientific American, go on to say that cats will follow gestures when humans point to find food. So they understand our actions at least on some basic level. When a cat's owner acted scared by the noise of a fan, cats in a different study moved further away from the fan. So either the cats were responding to the emotional state of their owner, or seeking security from the owner, all of which strongly suggest that cats do know who we are and care about us.