Cat Memory

Feline intelligence, memory, brain structure and function are surprisingly similar to humans. Intelligence and memory come from the brain. Cats brains are small compared to ours, occupying only about 0.9% of their body mass compared to a human brain that occupies about 2% on average. Research shows that the size doesn't matter. Surface folding and brain structure seem to be more important. Cat's brains have an incredible surface folding and their structure is about 90% similar to ours.


A cat's memory is divided into three groups: procedural, semantic and episodic memory. Procedural memory is based on motor skills like climbing a tree. Semantic memory is memory of facts, such as one's name or more complex facts. Episodic memory is memory of what happened, time and place (for example, when you left the room).


Their procedural memory - learning by doing - is phenomenal. A great example is when your kitty comes running when they hear the can of food opening. Cats don't engage in deep reflective thoughts, they don't learn through language - cats learn through experience. They remember things they have seen before, but remember things they have perceived much better using their sense of hearing, smell and taste.


Research shows that cats remember a variety of things and those memories can last for as many as 10 years! Often they will associate their surroundings with emotions. They will remember the visit to the vet's office if it was stressful, or they are known to blame a litter box for pain when experiencing at bladder infection. So, the emotions cats experience affect their memory of the events and places.


Cats can definitely learn and be trained just like dogs. They respond to positive reinforcement, which will make long-lasting memories. Studies have shown the working memory span of a cat is up to 16 hours compared to a dog's 5 hours. Feline behaviorists believe a cat's intelligence is comparable to a 2-year old child. They have a similar awareness of objects that human children develop in their first 2 years. Try this test - hide your cat's favorite toy behind a piece of thick paper or cardboard. If they are aware that the toy is still there, your cat is as smart as a human toddler! Cats will remember where their favorite toys are kept. My cats have a big toy basket. If one of their special toys has somehow made its way to the bottom of the basket, they will actually dig for it! Nothing is cuter than finding a pile of toys on the floor, or I should say all over my house. I have to pick up after them like I had a house full of toddlers!


Let's look another very interesting memory test you can try at home. Research has shown that cats remember more with their bodies than their eyes. When a cat steps over a toy or one of your shoes left in the floor on its way to the food bowl, it has to coordinate the stepping action of the front legs with the hind legs. Animals, including humans, unconsciously keep track of the location of objects relative to the body as they move. This tracking depends on signals associated with movement of the body.


To test cats, a study was done to see how well they could remember stepping over a 3-inch object. They had the cat step over the object with their front legs and then stop. Using food to distract them (you could use catnip or whatever your cat loves for your test), they had them stay in place for a period of time. Cats remained in place for a few seconds up to 10 minutes - the longest length of time a cat was distracted. Researchers then remove the object while the cat is still being distracted. In the experiment, once the cat moved forward again, they raised their hind legs as if the object was still there! See if your kitty does the same.


To compare the cats working "body" memory with visual memory, researchers repeated the experiment. This time the cats were stopped before they stepped over the object so they could just look at it. After they were distracted again and the object removed, they just walked on like it was never there. So it seems cats are not good at remembering what they have not yet experienced with their body or other senses.


Specialists recommend providing a stimulating environment with toys, interactive play and exercise for your kitties to support their mental health. Cats have a superior ability to learn new information, mix it with existing information and recall and use that information in a new situation. This ranks them as one of the most highly intelligent mammals.


Find Cats Meow Veterinary on Facebook and tell us the stories of how smart your cat is. Can they open cabinet doors, flush the toilet or fetch a paper ball? Let us hear from you!


Kim Hurley, Owner/Vet Tech

Cat's Meow Veterinary Hospital