Updated November 29, 2020
What if your dog or cat remembers more than you think?
I get asked all the time if dogs and cats have good memories. You might be surprised by what I think.
We really want to know:
- Does my dog have memories of his old owners?
- Will my cat remember me if I go away?
- Does my dog remember his walk from last week?
- Do cats and dogs remember abuse?
There are some parts of our pets’ memories that we just take for granted. It’d be a bit of a worry if your dog or cat forgot what they were doing in the middle of dinner or a game of fetch. This is short term or working memory. We also know that animals are often better than us at finding their way home and recognising places. This is topographic or spatial memory.
This is long term memory.
For long term memory this diagram shows the most widely accepted current thinking.
Implicit memory is the part of memory where animals learn without conscious effort. It’s all those things we experience and learn without knowing when we learnt them.You’ll see from some examples that animals are nearly as good at this as people.
Explicit memory is a different system we use to actively recall something, like how to do a maths sum, what someone’s name is, a holiday or what we ate last night etc. For pets, this might be used to recall training behaviours, previous escape routes or how they got the biscuit barrel open last time.
It’s fair to say that explicit memory is most highly developed in humans. Pets probably don’t do much of the episodic or autobiographical parts. This means we don’t think animals remember specific events or moments unless they are associated with something else.
Here’s how animals remember
Tinker probably doesn’t remember what happened on a specific walk last week. But thanks to implicit memory he knows that walks are fun, and he’s awesome at remembering the subtle clues that I’m about to take him out. And if on that walk, a man feeds him, he’ll always remember that that man fed him there. If a bee stings him, he’ll always know that bees sting. If he sees a cat, he’ll always look for the cat when we go that way. He’ll remember each and every experience in just the way he needs to. That’s why reward-based training works so well.
The Puss probably didn’t know which days she slept in our beds, but she would demand loudly on the specific daughter’s bed when she saw the telltale signs of bedtime. And on the odd times I was unwell and needed a daytime sleep, you could bet she got there first.
So what are some everyday examples from my experience of amazing animal memory?
- If I cut a toenail too short once, the pet will always be scared when I pick up the nail clippers.
- Tinker gets a vaccination once a year. When I bring a syringe home, he hides as soon as he sees it.
- Dogs who attended our puppy preschool always look for the puppies when they come in.
- While I needed a walking stick, a lovely labrador who came from an abusive home attacked me.
- My cat The Puss would recognise the tiny sound made by opening the Revolution; suddenly ears down & away.
- As a child our family adopted a young male dog. Ten years later his previous owner just whistled and he leapt for joy.
- My dogs always remember where their bone is buried or where Nana keeps the biscuits.
- The dog from last week who ate the Ratsak had seen it laid 4 days earlier and was waiting for the door to be opened.
- My dogs get a raw marrowbone every Tuesday. They are the ones who remind us!
- We’d love to hear your stories of animal memory. Please post them in the comments section.
So do cats or dogs remember us? Without a doubt, yes. They may not remember specific events after the moment has passed but they remember the feelings. They certainly remember the fact that we care for them, feed them, walk them and even abuse them.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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