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How long do cats remember people?

Do Cats Remember People? How Long Is a Cat’s Memory?

Do Cats Remember People How Long Is a Cat's Memory

A lot of who we are is defined by our memories. This is how we know what we like, what we dislike, and develop new skills. But how much do cats remember? It is clear that cats have the ability to remember as they can be trained and will learn important information like the location of their litter tray. However, what is a cat’s memory span? How similar are their memories to our memories? Do cats have a good memory? Do cats remember their owners?

Woman and cat sitting near the window

Your Cat’s Short Term Memory

First, let’s make sure we understand what exactly short term memory is. Also known as a ‘working memory’, short term memory is what you use to remember small bits of information for a small period of time. For example, if your friend tells you their telephone number, you will remember it long enough to record it into your phone, but if someone asks you the next day for the phone number, you will probably have to look it up. You won’t remember that number forever.

It isn’t clear whether your cat has a short term memory or not. Studies suggest that many animals don’t have very developed short term memories, which would make sense as short term memories are closely tied to problem-solving, academic success and intelligence. Like most animals, cats have very little use for temporarily remembering phone numbers or inconsequential patterns. Put simply, if your cat could talk, they probably couldn’t tell you what happened five-minutes ago.

This is not to say that cats are not intelligent problem solvers. As any cat owner will tell you, cats can not only tackle and solve puzzles, they enjoy it. However, when compared to humans, cats will not be able to make the conscious decision to remember details in the short term, and the length of time they could retain the information will be much shorter.

Your Cat’s Long Term Memory

Long term memory, as you might imagine, is different from short term memory because it involves storing information for a much longer period of time. If we return to the example of the phone number, it is possible to remember certain phone numbers without having to look them up. Many of us will have our parents’ mobile numbers memorized, for example, or perhaps a partner or spouse. Memories usually become long term memories through familiarity and regular use. If you type in a phone-number often, you are more likely to remember it forever.

Rather than short term memories, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that cats have decent long term memories. There are many stories of cats who recognize and are reunited with owners after many years of being apart, or who exhibit fear and anxiety due to previous unpleasant experiences. Long term memories are incredibly important for all animals. They allow us to avoid danger, such as areas where we have met predators in the past, and look after ourselves, such as recognizing good hunting grounds. It is important to note, however, that these long term memories are not formed and recollected in the same way that our human memories are stored and recollected.

Btitisch short hair cat

How Is Your Cat’s Memory Formed?

Rather than wondering ‘how long do cats remember?’, a better question is just ‘how do cats remember?’. You can’t make the assumption that cats recall their memories in the same way that we do. This is the biggest difference in our memories, bigger than the length of a cat’s memory. If we want to understand ‘do cats have a good memory?’, we need to know what type of memory we have.

Humans have episodic memories. We form and structure memories chronologically and store them in our brains independent of external cues. This allows for nostalgia, planning, fantasizing, and other complex thought processes. It particularly pertains us to the concepts of ‘long term’ and ‘short term’ memories as we strongly differentiate between ‘working memories’ that help us with our ongoing activities, and historical memories that allow us to remember our likes, dislikes, plans and skills.

Cats, however, have associative memories. This means they don’t record their life and recall it at a whim, like we do, but they recall memories in response to external events and stimuli. Knowing that you are about to come home when it reaches a certain time of day or recognizing their favorite spot in the garden are all examples of their associative memory. However, unlike us humans, they won’t think about the times you came home late or reminisce about that time they chased a robin in the garden. Ultimately, it is most likely that your cat is thinking relatively simple thoughts like:

  • ‘There’s my favorite toy!’
  • ‘Oh, I can smell a dangerous predator’
  • ‘Its time for my human to wake up’

Does Your Cat Miss You?

Understanding memory and the emotion of ‘loss’ is incredibly complicated, and researchers are still undecided when it comes to whether our cats miss us when we are gone. Lots of studies on ‘secure attachment’ have demonstrated that most cats do not change their behavior significantly when their humans leave them. For example, one study from 2015 found that, while cats did tend to vocalize a little bit more when their owner left the room, when compared to a stranger, it was not a significant enough change to conclude a secure attachment.

Additionally, the concept of associative memory suggests that our cats do not think about us when we are not there. The way that their memory operates prevents them from ‘missing’ things in the same way that humans do. This means that it is quite likely that our cats do not miss us in the traditional sense. However, that does not mean they do not appreciate us and our presence, and it explains why many cats still react positively when they meet a human or sibling that they haven’t seen in years. They may not have thought about that human, but they sure are happy to see them!

Many studies have proven that some cats do exhibit a change in behavior when their humans are gone. Specifically, many cats demonstrate stressed or anxious behavior. Common examples include:

  • Relieving themselves outside their litter box
  • Destroying furniture
  • Vocalizations, particularly whining or yowling
  • Cowering or hiding in small spaces

It can be tempting to interpret some of these actions as revenge or anger, but the truth is it is probably anxiety caused by being left alone. Cats are naturally anxious creatures, with some breeds being more anxious than others, and this can be exacerbated by negative or scary experiences. If your cat exhibits this behavior, it is worth exploring a variety of treatments, from getting them a pet sibling or taking them to day-care to reconditioning their behavior or buying a plug-in pheromone diffuser.

The truth is that most cats will be happy to see us after we have been gone for a long time. They will recognize us as a positive influence and remember us as a happy memory. However, it is less likely that they think about us when we aren’t there as they probably don’t think specifically about us at all. Particularly anxious cats, on the other hand, could be considered to ‘miss’ us in a certain way, or rather ‘miss’ the feeling of security they get when we are with them. A cat that feels anxious when alone or with strangers, will be much better off once you are reunited with them.

Man holding a cat

Does Your Cat Hold Grudges?

Last, but certainly not least, it is important to consider the negative aspects of their associative memory. It is quite likely that cats’ being prone to anxiety as a species, as we’ve already discussed, is partially due to the way that they make and store their memories. As you might imagine, just as your cat can associate the garden with fun and happiness, they are also likely to deeply ingrain negative experiences.

This could mean your cat will hold a grudge, will grieve losses and can experience severe trauma. It can be difficult to predict what will remind a cat about a negative experience. Even if the direct cause is out of their life, other common environmental factors can trigger bad memories and emotional responses. For example, a cat that felt car sick and threw up on a traumatic car journey may react poorly to being constrained in any travel cage or dark space, regardless of whether they are going to travel by car, or a cat that was bullied by next-door’s cat might become anxious about leaving the house in general, even if you later move home.

There is a lot you can do to help a cat that is struggling with negative experiences. If your cat seems fearful, anxious, or reacts negative to specific stimuli, consult your vet or a professional cat behaviorist. They will advise you about what is best for your specific circumstances.


  1. Sylvain Fiset, Duration Of Cats’ (Felis Catus) Working Memory For Disappearing Objects, Springer
  2. Melissa Schindler, Do Cats Have Long-Term Memory?, The Nest

Do Cats Recognize Their Owners?

do domestic cats recognize their owners?

Unlike other domesticated animals, cats don’t recognize humans as superiors and masters. In fact, they don’t even recognize owners by sight, which has led to an undeserved reputation as an aloof species.

Cats don’t recognize their owners by looking at them because their resting faces look the same. Instead, cats tell the difference between humans based on sound and smell. Cats learn to recognize their owner’s voice, and human skin carries a unique scent to a cat, regardless of whether they’re wearing cologne.

The idea that cats don’t recognize or care for their owners is a fallacy as they can have deep emotional connections with human companions. Their recognition and understanding just differ from our own.

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Does My Cat Recognize Me?

Cats can tell humans apart, which won’t come as a surprise to any cat owner. Most felines have a favorite person, preferring the company of one individual over others. The cat doesn’t identify this person by sight, though.

A study profiled by the Journal of Vision tested 12 cats on their recognition of human owners. Just 54% of cats recognized their owners by sight alone as human faces don’t register with cats. In effect, we look the same.

Part of this is how cats see humans., as it’s believed that cats see humans as fellow felines. Cats are slightly perturbed by our size and wonder why we’re so clumsy. As owners are non-aggressive, cats accept human companionship.

Some will dispute this theory, claiming that cats remember their fellow felines. The same study found that cats recognized other felines on sight 85% of the time, perhaps because cats are innately more wary of other felines.

If you watch your cat interact with another cat, it makes sense as cats can become wary of other cats upon sight. They seem to be recalling a negative experience or questioning why this infiltrator is entering their claimed territory.

This is likely because cats have long memories of bad experiences. First impressions matter to cats and can result in a long-held grudge. If two neighborhood cats fight on a first meeting, they’ll remember it, which is simple, instinctive self-preservation.

In addition, we must remember the effectiveness of a cat’s senses of hearing and smell. These senses, more than sight, are how a cat tells two people apart, and it’s these senses that enable a cat to bond with its owner.

Why Do Cats Not Recognize Faces?

Cats need more than just their vision to distinguish between humans.

Imagine that you had been asked to describe somebody’s face. Think about the characteristics you would use. The most obvious examples would be skin tone, eye color, hair color, and distinguishing features.

Cats have three cones in their retina. According to Vision Research, these are less effective at deciphering color than those of a human, so telling humans apart by pigmentation is impossible for a cat.

Cats are naturally long-sighted. This is the evolution of hunting and survival as wild cats survey their terrain from afar, deciding whether it’ll be safe and beneficial to enter. Up close, a cat’s vision is blurry.

This makes a prominent nose, distinctive chin, scars, or tattoos difficult for a cat to make out. Even facial hair doesn’t register in a cat’s vision, as the cat would need to rub itself against your face to determine the texture.

Think about the size discrepancy between cats and humans. We remember other people’s faces, as we are around the same eye level. Cats spend more time at our feet and will rarely be close to your face long enough to memorize it.

This makes the human face an indistinguishable mass of features to a cat. All they see is a tall shadowy shape with two arms and legs, which is why a cat’s other senses make up for this vision shortfall.

how long do cats recognize their owners?

Cats Recognize Their Owner’s Voices

According to Animal Cognition, cats recognize owners by their voice.

A test played cats three vocal tracks: one belonged to an owner with stranger’s voices making up the rest. 75% of the cats responded to their owner’s voice, ignoring the others.

There are limits as cats won’t always pick up its owner’s voice in a crowd. The volume will also play a part so, if you usually speak to your cat in a gentle sing-song tone, yelling may go unrecognized.

As Development Psychobiology explains, kittens respond to their mother’s voice. A queen uses a unique meow or chirp to gain the attention of her young as this warns them of danger or announces an imminent feeding session.

When a cat grows up and leaves its mother, its owner takes over the role. The cat expects you to keep them safe from harm, providing food and shelter, so it’ll respond to your voice in the same way as it did its mother.

My Cat is Not Responding to Me

If your cat recognizes your voice, why does it ignore you when you call it?

The journal Nature confirms that cats recognize their names. So, your cat is responding to you, but you don’t notice as recognition is subtle.

A cat won’t necessarily come bounding into a room like a dog. Instead, it’ll tilt its head slightly and twitch its ears, which denotes that it has acknowledged your voice and is getting on with its business.

Don’t take this personally as your cat’s not ignoring you. The lack of obvious reaction means that the cat recognizes your voice and feels safe. If not, the sound would be more startling.

The cat will find you and discover what you want when ready. As explained by Current Biology, this should be deemed a compliment as the behavior suggests a secure attachment. Your cat trusts you and wouldn’t react if it didn’t.

An immediate reaction could suggest a more insecure bond between owner and feline. The cat is rushing over to see you because it fears that you may not call again. This explains why some cats respond to others above their owners.

A cat will respond with excitement to certain voices, such as a family friend. It doesn’t see this person daily, so it experiences an insecure attachment. A good cat owner isn’t far away for too long, so the bond is more secure.

Recognition of Other Sounds

It’s not only an owner’s voice that a cat will recognize. Cats will also learn and memorize other sounds that you make, including footsteps and breathing.

When you return home from work, you may find your cat waiting at the door because it has memorized your gait and learned to recognize the sound of your footsteps. Due to its hearing, the cat heard you approaching from afar.

Cats recognize the patterns of human breathing. Do you wake up in the morning to find your cat staring at you? The cat hasn’t retained this position all night; it’s detected changes in your breathing.

Cats understand how you sound when you’re in a deep sleep rather than almost awake, perhaps because you’ve stopped snoring. Cats quickly learn that they get no attention during snoring. Lighter and shallower breaths are easily distinguishable, so your cat will listen for these, knowing that breakfast will soon follow.

do cats know their owners face?

Cats Recognize Their Owner’s Scent

Cats have up to 80 million scent receptors in their nose – 20 times more than humans. According to Applied Animal Behavior Science, scent is pivotal to a cat’s daily life and understanding.

Every human also has a distinguishable scent to cats. Humans recognize each other’s scents via artificial means, such as perfume or shampoo. A cat’s nose cuts through this artifice, picking up on the aroma of our skin.

If you change the scent you wear, it’ll pique the cat’s curiosity. Your cat may stare at you with its mouth open, tongue lolling, and upper lip curled. This is called the flehmen response.

The vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ) is found in the roof of a cat’s mouth. Cats use the flehmen response when encountering a new smell as they are taking in the scent in full, committing it to memory.

Cats remember good and bad things that are important to them, so they’ll be keen to memorize a new smell associated with their owner.

Marking Humans to Claim Them

Your cat will check your scent for any markings before you speak. As mentioned, cats won’t recognize an owner by sight. Until you speak, you could be anybody as far as a cat is concerned. The scent provides immediate recognition, which is how cats can identify their siblings.

Your cat will leave its mark on you constantly. Every time your cat rubs its head or paws on you, it leaves a scent behind, marking you as a source of pleasure. Think of it as the cat equivalent of a note to self. You are the provider of food or play, and your smell confirms it.

When your cat first acknowledges you, it’ll check for these scents. As soon as it detects them, it’ll approach you as it’s confirmed that you’re not a threat. Instead, it will draw comfort from your scent.

Also, your cat is checking for other smells. As innately curious animals, cats want to know what you have been doing without them. Your skin and clothing will carry scents associated with where you’ve been.

If you talk to your cat, it confirms your identity beyond doubt, so the cat may start to rub itself against you. If so, it’s reapplying its scent, covering up these new aromas.

Your cat knows that other felines use scent to recognize you, so rubbing is your cat’s way of claiming you, so it’s sending a warning to other cats that you have been claimed.

Cats can recognize their owners and other humans, but not based on their appearance. Voice and scent are the key factors in feline recognition. So, speak to your cat regularly and encourage scent gland marking.

I’m Richard, the lead writer for Senior Cat Wellness. I’m experienced in all cat health-related matters, behavioral issues, grooming techniques, and general pet care. I’m a proud owner of 5 adult cats (all adopted strays), including a senior cat who is now 20.

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