What a carefree world cats live in, full of fur and fluff and catnip and contentment, right?
Well, that’s how we like to imagine our feline friends, at least. We like to think that cats and dogs live a simpler life, free from the kind of long-term grudges or simmering anger that is an often-ugly part of the human equation.
No one likes to think about cats being miserable, let alone remembering it, and that includes abuse. Whether that “abuse” is shouting at your cat with a quick slap on the bottom or the kind of prolonged animal abuse we would all like to forget, how much might your cat actually remember, and what form might those memories take?
Cat Memory Versus Dog Memory for Short-Term Versus Long-Term Memory
Most dogs and cats have good memories when those memories are involved with things pertaining to food and hunting. Both species are able to encode short-term “where” and “what” memories, again, especially when it comes to food. Likewise, both species are able to encode longer-term memories of specific companions, which is what allows them to recognize you even after a prolonged absence.
Dogs have a slightly larger brain overall, but when it comes to the cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for things such as processing information and conducting problem solving, cats have nearly double the amount of neurons as dogs, 300 million to 160 million. Studies with cats and dogs have pointed to their ability to sort abstract categories, an ability researchers term the theory of the mind, with cats potentially able to read and remember pointing gestures better.
One study that is cited quite a bit on the Internet by those looking to pump up cat memories versus dogs, notes that in a test to find food, cats displayed far superior short-term memory, being able to remember information for 16 hours compared to just five minutes for dogs.
However, other studies despite that, arguing dogs have better short-term memory abilities.
What’s more, the mental mechanisms governing short and long-term memory may be different, so there is only so much that can tell us about cats’ and dogs’ long-term ability to remember things.
Of course, both cats and dogs do have long-term memories, and can lock in certain people for months, years, or even for their entire lives. As with most social creatures, dogs and cats tend to remember companions and things that remain part of their lives for an extended period of time.
Cats possess great long-term memories, and can remember certain places, people, and things for around 10 years. These memories allow them to remember who feeds them, cares for them and, yes, in typical cat fashion, who annoys them.
Do Cats Hold Grudges?
This is what makes the question of whether or not cats hold grudges so interesting.
On the one hand, cats do possess long-term memories of who treats them well and who treats them poorly, which is what allows them to be annoyed at the latter. Cats are complex social creatures, and so they can grieve for those who have passed on or remain annoyed at those who have denied them their food. Any cat owner is familiar with cats’ passive-aggressive behavior, such as reacting to owners coming back with indifference because they missed you and are happy to see you…but, well, they’re still cats, and how dare you leave them like that?
On the other hand, calling those reactions a “grudge” may be anthropomorphizing those feline feelings and reactions more than is warranted. It should come as no surprise to any cat owner that cats remember those who treat them well as well as those that treat them poorly and thus favor the former over the latter. That’s a basic combination of survival instincts with conditioned behavior. But a grudge is more than simply “reacting to stimuli.”
For example, Captain Ahab doesn’t merely “react to stimuli” in Moby Dick. He allows his hatred of the White Whale to famously fester, dwelling on it constantly, relating that misery to other aspects of his life in a kind of all-consuming monomania, associating the evilness of the White Whale with “the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” As Melville tells us, Ahab’s rage becomes so inflamed he feels ready to “burst his hot heart’s shell” like a mortar – which is quite a grudge, to say the least.
We have no information suggesting cats hold that kind of grudge, which is honestly for the best. Who wants to think about their cat being so enraged by something done in the past that they feel like they’re ready to burst? Grudges don’t mean simply remembering bad past events or negative stimuli, but developing complexly layered resentments like Ahab. It’s something which, for better and for worse, seems to be mostly the domain of humans and great apes.
Do Cats Remember Abuse?
However, abuse is something cats can and do remember, since at its most basic form it involves remembering and reacting to memories of negative stimuli and pain. If you or someone else has hurt a cat, they will remember. What’s more, they may extend their traumatic memories to cover those that provoke it, with sight and scent as common triggers.
For example, if a cat has been abused by someone with a particular hairstyle or someone wearing a distinct cologne or perfume, the presence of that hairstyle or scent may trigger traumatic memories and cause them to hide from anyone with those features. This is why, if you purchase a cat from an animal rescue that has been mistreated, they may display feelings of animosity or hide from and be afraid of you even though they have just met you. It isn’t necessarily “you” they’re afraid of, it’s their traumatic memories being triggered.
Forgive and Forget?
Ahab never learned to forgive or forget Moby Dick, and sometimes it can seem like your cat is just as stubborn when you’ve affronted them. Serious acts of unforgivable animal abuse aside, we all need “forgiveness” now and again, including with our cats, who can remember past offenses pretty well.
Signs your cat is mad at you include:
- Their tail being low or quickly swishing back and forth
- Crouching low to the ground
- Growling or hissing
- Paw swipes
Thankfully, as long as the cat hasn’t been repeatedly abused or psychologically scarred, it will nearly always forgive and forget.
When trying to make up with your cat, it is essential that you let it approach you rather than the other way around. Your cat is bound to be a little tense before making up with you. It remembers what happened, and while the cat may be ready to move on, it’s bound to still be wary at first. That’s why you don’t want to force things, and why it can be so hard to get a cat that has been abused to forgive any human, since approaching it often only makes things worse.
Unless the cat has been extremely scarred, however, sooner or later it should approach you, at which point you’ll want to be gentle and conciliatory. Pet the cat gently if it indicates it’s okay with that, speak to it gently, and perhaps give the cat a treat.
By doing that, you should be able to get your cat to forgive and forget.