How Long is Your Pet’s Memory Span?

June 18, 2013

By Linda Cole

Some people assume that dogs and cats aren’t capable of retaining memory over the years. Most people believe both species can only remember for a few minutes, at most. However, experts say that how long a dog or cat’s memory span is depends on whether you’re talking about short-term memory or long-term memory – associative memory or real memory.

Associative memory is when a dog or cat remembers by associating a specific activity with what they see, smell or hear, and whether they have a positive or negative memory of it. For example, my dogs associate the sounds my computer makes when it’s shutting down with going outside one last time at night. But if I mute the computer’s volume so they can’t hear the beeps, they have no idea why I’m getting up from my chair. Pets pay close attention to every little thing we do, and their associative memory kicks in when something triggers it. Yet when there’s nothing to associate an action to, their real memory kicks in and they don’t remember what happens next.

Associative memory is the reason why you can’t punish a dog, left alone, for tearing up a pillow or getting in the trash. By the time you get home, he has no idea why you’re yelling at him, but will associate your reaction with unfair discipline, and will remember it. When a pet associates something negative with an activity, it can be hard to change their behavior. If you only take your pet in the car when it’s time to visit the vet, he may associate being in the car with something unpleasant. If your cat has a negative experience in a specific room, she may be reluctant to go back. So it’s important for your pet to experience positive things in the car or the room, like going somewhere enjoyable or having fun playing in that “scary” room. However, you need to tread carefully to make sure you don’t reinforce a negative association your pet will remember.

Cats aren’t as excitable as dogs. They have to maintain their “coolness” after all. Felines do associate sights, sounds and smells, though. If they didn’t, the electric can opener would never be successful at training a cat to come running when “it” calls out. A cat’s memory is thought to be at least 200 times better than a dog’s. But as any cat owner knows, felines are more selective, and remember what they think is useful to them.

Short term memory for a dog is about five minutes; cats remember much longer, up to 16 hours. Long term memory is harder to determine. We know dogs have a long term memory because they can remember hand signals and words for their lifetime. Cats have an excellent memory when it comes to remembering people they have a strong bond with. On the other hand, if a cat has been mistreated by a human, she will remember. If you have an adopted shelter cat who avoids men, young boys wearing hats, or women who wear a lot of makeup, it’s likely your cat has a memory that triggered a response to avoid those people as a threat. That’s why it can be difficult to earn an abused or neglected cat’s trust.

When it comes to long term memory, what’s amazing to me are the many stories of dogs and cats that became lost or were relocated, and walked thousands of miles to find their way back home. Sometimes it wasn’t a person they had bonded with and missed, but another pet; and for some, it was getting back to an area they were familiar with. Was it their memory of the person or place they loved that kept them going? Researchers think they understand a dog or cat’s memory, but their science isn’t exact and more studies need to be done.

When my first dog, Jack, was young, I took him hiking in a meadow with a small brook winding through it. He loved playing in the water and racing through the meadow. The land belonged to a farmer who had given me permission to hike on his property. Sadly, he sold it a couple years later and the new owner wasn’t keen on people wandering around.

Years later, I saw Jack staring wistfully out the living room window and thought about the brook. He was getting old, and I wondered if he remembered the meadow. I made up my mind I was going to ask the farmer if I could take Jack to the meadow one last time. He said yes. As we began our walk, Jack’s steps got a little quicker, his eyes were bright, and his behind and tail wiggled eagerly. Suddenly, my old guy was running through the meadow, heading towards the brook. He remembered his favorite place.

Top photo by Sini Merikallio
Bottom photo by Andrea Westmoreland

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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  1. Dustie says:

    I have had my cat 15 years she has not my family. my son in army saw her and it had been 3 years . she was by his side the hole time.she starting to go blind but besides that she is fine.and cat did forget like that then would not know where there cat box is

  2. Ryen Williams says:

    Me and my cat were playing together and I hurt her by mistake I did mean to hurt her. Will she remember that forever?! If so she will never be my best buddy again :c.We did everything together!*cries*

  3. Terra O says:

    My aunt has a cat, she is my favorite because when I vacation there for months at a time, she always sleeps with me every night. But when I left for a year and came back, she always avoids me and sleeps with my cousin instead. I don’t think she remembers me anymore… But she still cuddle with me, so shreds are still there…

  4. Isabella Teneyuque says:

    It was sooo cute thay Jack remembered his favorite place in the meadow. Ot had to be the most adorable thing in the world. Thank you for writing this passage.

  5. Sean B says:

    What great story’s! and facts all in one I loved reading this. I’m doing science fair on this kinda thing and i will for sure have you as a referral

  6. Jay says:

    NICE ……….. I specially like that meadow part ….and i am wondering if my god would ever come back …ACTUALLY MY DAD …left my dog 6months old 🙁 somewhere like 10 kms away and its been 5 months …..
    i am still searching for my dog .. im literally full with tears 🙁 :'(

  7. Sarah says:

    I’ve had a cat for 9 years (he turns 9 in a few days) he had been an inside cat all of his life, until last summer. He started running out of the house spontaneously. I found him at my neighbors house about a month ago. I picked him up and brought him home. On the short walk back to my front door, he struggled to get out of my arms a lot. When I let him go inside the house instead of eating food or trying to sniff the new kitten we’ve gotten while he was gone, he ran straight underneath my bed. He hides there most days now too. Does he not remember our 8 years together? Did he forget me?

    1. Ryen Williams says:

      My cat hides under my bed to lounging like she is in paradise!lol.

  8. Ellie White says:

    my dog accidentally got hit in the face. He seemed mad I gave him lots of kisses. Now he’s lying on the floor, growling if I touch him. Does he remember? Does he hate me?

  9. Bob S. says:

    Beautiful story. Funny, how we come to love our pets and seemingly, it is s requited love! Best of luck to you, and if you presently have any furry family members, to them as well!

  10. The cat we are taken care of do belong to a girl we know.and one cat we had, but her boyfriend taken care of it, that they can’t be together a few weeks a go before the got fixed one a tacked one and a fight broke lose and the other retaliated agaist her so some days later.we put them to gether and the hissed and started to we care for the one cat and the girls boyfriend takes the other cat so they stay a way from each other.i think chester do remember the fight.we do love both cats but only can hadle the one cat.thanks.

  11. My girls have shown memory…not sure if associative or not though but some is funny. For instance, Robin (Tortie from 18 years ago) used to go to the paper plate cabinet and paw down some paper plates, then go to the Fancy Feast cabinet and open it with her paw. If they were within paw sipe distance one or more would come crashing to the counter. The girl was hungry and got her own dinner except for that crucial can opening.

    She also took sample small bags of KD kibble she was to try and she hated, and buried them in the litter box while I was gone to work.