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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