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® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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Comments

  1. Emily says:

    Very interesting . I enjoyed reading . ☺️

  2. Sophie says:

    no it isnt stop being rude

  3. Brittany says:

    I was reading your article as I had my friend take care of my pet cat Soot for almost a year while I’ve getting my life situated. But reading that story about your dog made me tear up!!

  4. John A Coy says:

    I am training my 9 month old pup to understand, or at least, respond positively to the words No, Bad, and Good. Most often, unless excited by a rabbit or another dog, he seems to get it, but I don’t want to confuse him if 10 min. after he’s returned from a chase I find him and tie him outside while telling him, “That was bad.” He did come home after all.

  5. William Fauber says:

    I’ve read allot about the short term memory for dogs being 2 to 5 minutes and I’m not sure this is true for all dogs. I have a Siberian Husky (Wooly version) she amazes me daily at the things she remembers example, She has a toy box of 20+ different toys and she know at least 10 of them by name. Some were just given to her. Another example if she’s bad during a walk, I’ll tell her she’ll loss her walk privilege if she doesn’t stop the bad behavior, I tell her you were bad and won’t get your morning walk tomorrow she remembers the next morning and doesn’t even ask for the walk. I guess it’s not so strange as people have big difference in memory capabilities and so do K9’s.

    1. shepelenko says:

      dogs have associating memories, meaning they remember things like sounds, people, smells and their brain associate things with them. so lets lets say you go for a run every day at 5 am for 30m. most likely your dog get exited every time you get back. most owners will be like ”scooby why you exited i do this every day!!”. they dont understand the concept of time. all he understand is my owner home = happy. my owner away = not happy. its all about ”triggers”. thats how you teach them tricks, you associate a sound with food that he get if he preform a task. after a while the sound will be associated with the task/trick even without the food. cat on the other hand, they actually think and scheme. its scary really 😀

  6. Lori says:

    I think a dog and cats even kittens have longer memory then you think too.

  7. lori says:

    i think they do remember there owners . my car disappeared for months . then one day we came home and there he was on the door step. very skinny and exstreamly hungry. Where ever he had been some how he found his way home and he did remember me and my daughter. and he didn’t want to go back outside again .

    1. Mariana Bastos says:

      your CAR dissapeared for months and then he came back skinney and hungry WTF!

      1. KT says:

        Have you never made a typo? Read for context and save the sarcasm.

        1. Bob says:

          What do yo mean

  8. scott says:

    Yes I have a cat and it’s his memory span is over over 16 hours

  9. I believe dogs have amazing long term memory. My dog which I spend a lot of time has proved this to me. My dog has a bad habit of barking at animals on TV, loads of adds use animals and my dog holds memory of around 20/30 advertisements that he reacts to. This includes the music used in the add. He even reckonised Freddy mercuries voice (flash add) though was another add. Was really amazed recently when English sheepdog add shaking wet mud over house came on….. had not been on for about 6/9 months but as soon as my dog heard guitar riff, he was asleep in other room…….he reacted right away…… his memory is equal to my own and I have average memory span…… amazed. Hope dog owners understand……good dog owners will understand 🙂

  10. Samuel King says:

    I have a American bulldog he was stolen and luckily after two years I was able to get him back when he first see me he had a look of disbelief and we both stared at eachother and then he ran to me and literally hugged me I could not believe that he recognized me

  11. Jean says:

    I thought I was dealing with a cat who could qualify for MENSA, but I guess she’s normal. She is a feral that I brought into my home a month or so ago. She was very timid, and discovered that she could escape through one window in which there was an air conditioning unit. She pulled back one of the baffles and escaped. Six weeks later, I brought her into the house again because we were having torrential rains. She was less timid this time, marched into the kitchen, ate some food and snuggled a bit. But after I went to bed, she went into the room with the air conditioner, pulled back the baffle and escaped. I was amazed that she recalled the layout of the house after having been inside only one other time.

    1. Mary Ann Rogers says:

      Maybe since you have been through something similar you could help me out. We had a feral cat show up in our front yard way over a month ago and she was in heat. After the heat process passed to trapped her in a cage (I had hoped that local agencies could help me, but none wanted anything to do with a feral cat) and took her to our vet and he gave her a physical, checked her teeth, spayed her, gave her all her shots, etc. She had been living in my shop since the end of March recuperating. She never socialized with me and was constantly afraid. Today I opened my shop door and let her leave; I do not know when she left, but she is gone. I sort of expected that she would stick around since she liked the property before she was spayed. Now I am really sad because I don’t know where she is and if she is OK. do you think she will eventually come back?

  12. Ali says:

    My parents have always told the story of a dog we had when my mom was pregnant with me. I’m not sure how old this dog was or how long my parents had her before she did this, but one day she ran off and didn’t come back. My parents search frantically for her, as she had a tendency to do that but was always back soon. Eventually they gave up, but almost a year to the day she returned. No one knows where she went or how she found her way home, but it’s so interesting to wonder what happened in that time.

  13. Martin says:

    That’s a beautiful story right there, your taking your old guy to a last stroll to that brook. Just got the news that my beloved and loving cat Dexter has an untreatable tumor in his chest. I love him too much and I don’t wanna lose him. I’m pampering him as much as I can, and holding him and kissing him, and he’s purring loudly as usual, but you know, for how long? It just breaks my heart to smithereens.

    1. marcos avila says:

      you are going to make me cry here…

  14. Remi says:

    I gave away our 9 year old to a good friend a few about 6 months ago because our newborn baby had alergies. My 5 year old still talks about the dog, we have not visited the dog since but we all miss him. I know he is in good hand I’m just wondering if it would be ok for the dog or my daughter to visit? Do I risk confusing the dog?

  15. Donna says:

    I have a 3 1/2-year-old male Chihuahua. Since he was about four months old he has used little stools I purchased to get on and off the furniture. March 3 he slipped running and hurt his patella in his right leg he was restricted to his stroller and crate for two weeks only to go out to go to the bathroom after that for one week he could just walk around carefully. Now he can do what he wants however he does not go near the stools. He was never hurt climbing up or down off the stool he was hurt running and playing. Someone suggested he forgot how to use them is this possible after using them for 3 1/2 years and just being away from them for three weeks.

  16. Myrtle says:

    Found this article because it’s raining and I have a cat who is deathly scared of rain (we have a tin roof!) it started about 4 years ago, she was 14mo old, and we’d had her about 8 months. she was outdoor trained. Then we want away for a week and the fall rains came and when we came back she was peeing in the house and wouldn’t go outside anymore. We got her a litterbox, and she became mostly indoor, and after a while I noticed fear behaviour when it rained; she’d mew and hide. I’ve been training her since then when it rains that it’s cuddle time and now she comes to me night or day when the rain starts to get a hug (or she jus hides under the bed). It’s raining hard right now and she came over, So I was googling to see what could have scared her so much so long ago that the rain seared into her memory as a bad association. So I think they may have good long term memory.

    Our second cat has on just 2 occasions run over to greet a stranger, once was a phone repair man – she came running to greet this man with a beard, 2nd time it was a Labrador who came to visit – she went right up to it – dog didn’t quite know what to think and just looked at her funny.

    I’ve taken from that that she had a man and a dog in her prior life before the shelter, and mistook these for her former friends, but I don’t have the evidence!

  17. Maddie says:

    My cat ran away and it took her around 48 to 72 hours for her to come back and when she did it was not good she had been run over she did good but she was hit down the road she walked all the way home

  18. Kyle says:

    My staffie remembered me after I spent a week with my parents last December. Then I came to stay six months later, and he picked right up where he left off. Plus he knows a lot of words.

  19. Daniel says:

    I have a cat. He’s my best friend. I haven’t often had to take him to the vet, once a year max, but it’s only taken a couple of trips for hom to get used to the carrier. At first he hated it. He was very stressed. By the third trip he could tolerate it fine, even poking his head out exploring the car as we drove. At the vet, as soon as he’d got his vaccination shot he jumped back into the carrier of his own volition, ready to go home. Cats are way smarter than people give them credit for. If your cat seems dumb to you, then check your attitude.

  20. Mary Howell says:

    Ha,ha this is funny. I thought of you & Becky when I saw it. Mom

  21. 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

  22. 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*

    1. Meri says:

      Did she rememeber? This just happened to me. I am terrified she will forever hate me!! :'(

      1. Anonymous says:

        I think they know it was an accident. My cats forgive me if I accidentally step on a toe or something. I do say sorry and pet them. All will be ok

    2. bob says:

      no, it was just one time

  23. 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…

  24. 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.

  25. 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

  26. 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 🙁 :'(

  27. 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.

    2. mikel says:

      you know that a cat year is every 3 years right

  28. 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?

  29. 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!

  30. 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 fight.so 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.

  31. 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.

    1. Cherie says:

      My dog Jenny was lent to my Aunty for showing, but given to me in return for her puppies. She had Aust champions whilst I had her. A valuable dog was taken back by her real owner and sold to a lady who was overseas and didn’t know about the little girl who went to the dog shows for six years looking for her. While in hospital critically ill, I dreamt Jenny was coming home. A phone call came and after nearly seven years a reunion. After hearing Jenny’s history an Australia wide search was undertaken, an impossible task but continued as a last request of the new owners sister. On the day we were reunited She remembered me, barked,jumped, yelped with excitement. The happiest moment of our lives. I was told she was always waiting for someone, always running to the gate, expecting, excited. She lived to be twenty six years old and was a golden sheltie. I love my Jenny to this day. I survived my illness when I was sixteen to be with her and am alive today because of her sixty years later. She NEVER forgot me.