Do Cats Reminisce? Exploring Feline Memory and Past Thoughts


Do cats think about the past? It’s a question many cat owners have pondered while watching their feline friends gaze out the window or curl up on a favorite blanket. Though cats can seem mysterious, researchers have uncovered fascinating insights into how their minds work, including their ability to think about past events.

In this article, we’ll explore evidence from cognition studies, evolutionary science, and neuroscience to better understand what’s going on in cats’ minds. We’ll also draw on anecdotal tales from vets and cat owners to showcase real-world examples. By evaluating both scientific findings and observable behaviors, we can gain meaningful perspective on cats’ capabilities.

While we may never know exactly what cats are thinking, understanding how their minds evolved and operate provides clues into their inner world. Join us as we investigate: can cats reflect on the past?

Defining ‘Thinking About the Past’

When psychologists talk about thinking about the past, they are referring specifically to episodic memory. Episodic memory involves mentally projecting oneself back in time to re-experience a past event, being able to recall specific details and personal emotions associated with it [1]. This is different from semantic memory, which is memory for facts and information without a sense of personal recollection or time sequence [2].

Episodic memory creates mental time travel, allowing us to recollect our past experiences. With semantic memory, we simply know facts and information without reliving the experience of learning or encountering those facts. Research suggests that some animals like chimpanzees may possess episodic memory, while other animals like dogs may rely more on semantic memory.

Evidence That Some Animals Have Episodic Memory

Research in recent years has provided evidence that some animals may possess episodic memory, the ability to recall specific events from the past. Studies on chimpanzees and scrub jays are particularly compelling.

In a 2007 study, researchers showed that chimpanzees could recall details about flash cards they had seen before, such as the colors and positions of shapes on the cards, even when they had not seen them for several weeks (Source). This suggests that, like humans, chimps have the capacity for episodic memory of specific past events.

Scrub jays demonstrated a similar ability in experiments where they cached different foods in multiple locations and were able to remember which foods they cached where and how long ago (Source). This indicates they can recall the what, where and when of food caching events.

While more research is needed, these studies imply that some pets and domesticated animals may also retain episodic memories. Owners often notice behaviors in dogs and cats that suggest they remember specific experiences, such as reacting differently to a location where something happened in the past.

Cat Cognition Research

There has been extensive research on cat intelligence, memory and cognition since the 1970s. Studies have found that cats have excellent long-term memory and can remember complex problem-solving skills for over 10 years. They also exhibit cognitive abilities like abstract thinking, cross-modal perception and object permanence comparable to other mammals like dogs, chimpanzees and dolphins (

Research specifically on episodic memory in cats is more limited, but some studies provide evidence that cats may possess this capability. One study trained cats to respond to unique sounds associated with food being available in one of four locations. The cats learned to go to the correct location in response to the sound cues. Even after a delay of several hours from the last trial, the cats responded correctly to the sounds about 70% of the time, suggesting they formed episodic-like memories of the associations ( More research is still needed to conclusively demonstrate episodic memory in cats.

Anecdotal Evidence

Many cat owners report observing behavior in their cats that suggests they are capable of episodic memory. For example, some owners have noticed their cats acting skittish or fearful when revisiting a location where they previously had a traumatic experience, such as getting injured or encountering an aggressive dog ( Other owners describe cats that seem excited and affectionate when reunited with previous owners they hadn’t seen in years, suggesting the cat recalled their bond (

Veterinarians also share anecdotal evidence of cats exhibiting episodic memory. Dr. Margie Scherk, a veterinarian with a special interest in feline behavior, describes cases where cats reacted anxiously or aversely when returning to a veterinary clinic where they had undergone a stressful procedure in the past. This implies the cat remembered the specific negative experience at that location (

While anecdotal, these observations by owners and vets suggest cats can mentally travel back in time and recall unique autobiographical events, rather than just remembering learned facts or general semantics.

Evolutionary Perspective

Would episodic memory confer survival advantages for cats’ ancestors? Yes, research suggests that the ability to recall specific past events likely developed as an evolutionary adaptation in felines. Episodic memory allows animals to learn from past experiences and use that knowledge in the future. For example, recalling that a particular location yielded a good meal previously helps guide future hunting behaviors. Likewise, remembering that an encounter with another animal was threatening enables the cat to avoid those circumstances again. These types of memories provide survival and reproductive advantages.

Studies show that the episodic memory capacity in animals depends greatly on the size of the hippocampus region of the brain [1]. The hippocampus is associated with learning, memory, and spatial navigation. Cats have a larger hippocampus compared to other carnivores like bears and raccoons. This indicates that episodic memory evolved in felines as a beneficial trait for hunting success and survival.

Brain Structure Comparison

When comparing cat and human brains, there are similarities and differences in the structures involved in episodic memory. Episodic memory refers to the ability to mentally travel back in time and re-experience an event. In both cats and humans, the hippocampus plays a key role in episodic memory.

The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe and is larger relative to total brain size in cats compared to humans. Damage to the hippocampus impairs episodic memory in both species [1]. However, the hippocampus alone does not explain complex episodic memory capabilities.

Humans also rely on expanded prefrontal and temporal cortical regions, which allow for detailed memory encoding and retrieval. Cats do not have comparable cortex expansion. Additionally, neuroimaging reveals different hippocampal activation patterns in humans versus cats during memory tasks [2].

In summary, while cats and humans share basic hippocampal similarities, humans have evolved more advanced neural networks that support richer episodic memory. The full extent of cats’ mental time travel remains unknown.

[1] The Episodic Memory System: Neurocircuitry and Disorders

[2] Feline Intelligence: How Your Cat’s Brain Works

Concluding Thoughts

The body of research so far does not provide a definitive answer on whether cats can mentally revisit specific past experiences and events. While some studies have demonstrated limited episodic memory capabilities in cats, the evidence remains inconclusive.

Most cat cognition studies related to memory have focused on semantic memory—the recollection of learned facts and general knowledge. Cats certainly utilize semantic memory in impressive ways, remembering cues, routines, locations, and more.

However, episodic memory—the ability to mentally travel back in time to re-experience a specific event—has been more difficult to prove. Some research hints that cats may exhibit episodic memory in narrow contexts, such as food rewards. But more rigorous, large-scale studies are needed.

The lack of more conclusive evidence does not mean cats do not think about the past; they may in ways we cannot yet detect. More research is needed using creative methods and building on our understanding of cat psychology and neuroscience.

While the jury is still out, it is clear cats have excellent memories even if the full extent remains a mystery. Under the right conditions, some cats appear able to draw on past experiences to inform their present behaviors and decisions.

Takeaways for Cat Owners

There are several ways cat owners can engage their feline companions’ memories and enrich their mental stimulation:

  • Establish routines for feeding, play time, and bedtime. Following schedules can help cats form positive memories and feel secure. [1]
  • Use interactive toys like puzzles and treat balls that make cats think and remember solutions. Rotating different puzzles keeps cats engaged. [2]
  • Change up play routines to create novel experiences for your cat to remember. Introduce new toys, switch locations, or adjust timing.
  • Take cats on walks or field trips to new environments. The novel sights and smells will stimulate their brains.
  • Train cats through positive reinforcement. Have them practice tricks and commands daily to exercise memory.
  • Hide treats around the house and have cats search for them. Search games tap into working memory.
  • Maintain a healthy diet with antioxidants to support cognitive health as cats age. Consult your vet for diet tips.

Engaging a cat’s natural curiosity and providing brain games will help keep their memory sharp.

Looking Ahead

The research on cat cognition and episodic memory is only beginning. Scientists have developed some promising methodologies for testing cats’ memories, such as the food-hiding experiments. However, more work needs to be done to understand the extent and limitations of cats’ abilities.

Some areas for future research could include:

  • Testing cats’ memories over longer time spans – do they remember events from months or years ago?
  • Studying brain activity during memory retrieval tasks to pinpoint which areas are involved.
  • Comparing episodic memory capacity between different cat breeds.
  • Examining the role of stimulus salience – are cats more likely to remember very positive or very negative events?

While we may never know if cats actively think about or reminisce over their past exploits, continued research will shed more light on the sophistication of feline cognition. Cat owners can keep an eye out for studies recruiting pet cats as subjects.

In the meantime, it’s clear that cats are capable of some remarkable mental feats. Their memories may work in mysterious ways, but they are far from absent.

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