Do Cats Remember If You Rescue Them?

If you have ever rescued a cat, you may be asking yourself: "Do cats remember being abandoned?" And if they do, what can we do to help?
an image of a cat looking at the camera

If you have ever rescued a cat, you must have felt the warmth of their unconditional love. These feline creatures have unique personalities, and it's difficult to tell which traits are genetic or remnants from their past. Cats may have developed certain habits, anxieties, or phobias due to traumatic experiences.

Do Cats Remember Being Abandoned?

a calico cat sitting on the ground near a fence

An estimated 3.2 million cats enter animal shelters in the US every year. Sadly, many of these feline friends have faced trauma and heartbreak. While not every rescue cat has been abandoned, most have been dumped, left behind, and forgotten. Animal shelters try to accept as many of these abandoned animals as possible and find new homes. However, we cannot erase a cat's past, even in the best-case scenarios and perfect adoptions. From the moment a cat is left on the side of the road or left with a colony of hostile feral cats, they are irrevocably changed.

You may be asking yourself, "Do cats remember being abandoned?" And if they do, what can we do to help?

A Cat's Short-Term Memory

a cat laying on top of a bed

Cats, like humans, have two types of memory: short-term memory and long-term memory. The working memory (short-term) allows cats to remember information and facts for a short duration of time, usually a few minutes. For instance, cats use their short-term memory to recall the location of hidden objects or treats or when they navigate an unfamiliar path with physical obstacles.

Studies on feline short-term memory reveal varying results on how well cats remember things in the moment. One study from 2006 found that cats had limited short-term memory, while another experiment conducted in 2007 found that cats had excellent short-term memory when faced with visual and physical challenges. In this study, cats could recall the location of obstacles and successfully navigate the path even when the obstacles were no longer visible. Repetition is also found to reinforce short-term memory.

While it's challenging to determine precisely how much a cat remembers of short-term events, experts say that feline memories are powerful regarding their survival and well-being. This means that cats can remember where they found food, water, or shelter, but not other things not associated with their basic needs.

When it comes to being abandoned, cats can experience both emotional and physical distress. Being left behind by someone they relied on for survival can be traumatic, especially when they are in a new environment or lack their usual comforts. The related negative emotions can create memories that last much longer. However, unlike humans, cats do not replay the experience like a movie in their heads.

A Cat's Long-Term Memory

a black and white cat sleeping on a window sill

Cats have long-term solid memories, especially regarding events that affect their survival and well-being. However, the emotions they feel during those experiences make a more significant impact. The stronger the emotion, the more likely the cat remembers it.

It's important to understand that when a cat remembers events, they don't replay the experience like humans do. Instead, they remember the intense emotions associated with the event. For example, if a cat is abandoned, they may not remember what their human was wearing or whether they were driven in a car, but they will remember feeling scared, stressed, and confused.

Abandonment is always traumatizing for cats, and most experts agree that cats can remember being abandoned by people they trust. The emotions associated with that experience are likely so strong that the cat can retain those feelings for years.

Studies say cats can remember significant events and feelings for up to 10 years. However, this ability decreases as cats age and lose brain cells used for memory. Additionally, older cats are more likely to be affected by abandonment than kittens because they have had more time to get used to their environment and daily routine. A sudden change is more life-altering for them than for a kitten who has only had a home for a few weeks.

How To Help A Recently Abandoned Cat

a cat with blue eyes standing on gravel

If you suspect that your newly adopted cat has been abandoned before, the best thing you can do is provide them with stability and time. Even without the added trauma of abandonment, it may take one to six months for a newly adopted cat to adjust to their new life fully. If your cat's past was complicated, it could take longer for them to feel completely comfortable and secure in a loving home.

It's common for recently rehomed cats to display behavioral issues, such as litter box accidents, constant hiding, and sometimes even aggression. There are also reports that cats undergoing a significant change develop "sickness behaviors" even if they are healthy. These behaviors suggest that the cat feels stressed, scared or confused.

Your cat likely recognizes that they have lost something important (the stability from their previous home), and it will take time to realize what they have also gained.

If you're concerned about your cat's health, it's best to talk to your veterinarian immediately. However, most newly adopted cats need time to adjust to their new environment. Let the cat have a chance to explore their new surroundings at their own pace, and give positive reinforcement even for bad behaviors.

Showing your cat love and stability can help them overcome anxieties and fears associated with past experiences. While being kind and patient won't erase the bad memories of being abandoned, your cat can heal and move forward with time. The hurtful emotions they experienced could become less intense, and eventually, their past trauma will no longer affect their daily lives.

Can cats remember their lives before the rescue?

It has been proven that cats have exceptional memories. They can remember important people even after years of being around them and recall details from their past lives before being rescued. Once a cat learns something accidentally or through trial and error, it usually retains that information for most of its life.

Therefore, if a cat has negative experiences, these memories can be hard to forget. A rescued cat might exhibit particular anxieties or phobias due to past distress. But once the cat is in a new and hopefully more loving environment, they can distinguish between past and present.

Cats also remember good times, just like negative memories. If you provide your rescued cat with love and patience, they will know they've been rescued and will have excellent memories of your home for years. If your cat has been rescued from a traumatic situation, it's best to consult a veterinarian to develop a professional plan for dealing with behavioral issues.

Your rescue cat knows that you love her

a person sitting on a couch holding an orange cat

Cats are often considered not affectionate, but most cat owners agree that their feline friends show and receive love just like dogs. When a cat meows, nuzzles up, sleeps next to you, or walks between your legs, these are all signs of affection. When a cat purrs as you scratch their head or rub their belly instead of hissing at you, you know they're ready to accept all the love you have to give. The best way a cat can show gratitude for being rescued is by the endless love they give in return.


a person's hand reaching out to touch a cat's paw

Cats have remarkable memories and can easily remember both negative and positive experiences from their past. If you have adopted a cat from a traumatic situation, providing her with a safe and loving environment is essential. Consult a veterinarian to learn how to alleviate any anxiety or phobias your cat might have until she is comfortable enough to give and receive affection. By showing your animal companion love and care, you can become her favorite human in no time. You can be a beacon of hope and love in her life after rescue.

Rescuing a cat is not only life-changing for the owner but also for the cat. The love, companionship, and joy a rescued cat provides are mutual. The bond between a rescued cat and their owner is unbreakable, and having each other in their lives is a blessing.

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