One thing is guaranteed. If your pet has a long term memory, it will be related to where the food is kept. Cats have returned to homes 10 years later and walked straight to the cabinet where their food was. Pets blissfully forget the small stuff and remember only what’s important to them: their food, security and people who have been kind or cruel to them.
Serious study is being done in Japan to learn how and what pets remember. One reason is to learn how vets can make their practices closer to being fear-free, so pets won’t panic when they are brought in for each visit.
Scientists explain that humans have episodic memory: I went here and then this happened. They associate a place with what happened there. Cats were tested by serving favorite treats in certain bowls and then observing what they would do when presented with an empty bowl, or bowls that had switched treats. When the cats returned, they examined the empty bowl more often. Scientists suspect that the cats remembered that food had been in the bowls, so they waited for more.
We also know that dogs bury bones. Months or perhaps years later, they remember where to dig.
Memory is stored in the brain in two different places. Short term memory is the function used for everyday skills. Pets function so well with us because they are keen short term rememberers, especially when it comes to schedules. Dogs do better than cats in this aspect. Long term memories, of something that happened years ago, are stored away to be recalled only if needed. Cats and dogs seem to be even in long-term memory retention.
Yet we do see animals that are perpetually afraid of certain things – like men with hats, or a car door slamming – that are most likely associated with an episodic event earlier in life. Pets may be more logical than us. When they have a bad experience, they don’t go back for more. Humans tend to use wishful thinking that maybe this time will be better.
Time may not heal old wounds, but it can certainly hide them. An Oregon State University study showed that the farther back an incident had occurred, the less likely a dog was to remember it, just like older people. Dogs have been proven to sometimes develop dementia as well. Cats don’t appear to have any memory decline with age.
Can we help our pets with their memory? Puppies and kittens form much of their memory in the first year, so lots of training and compassion will be a big boost for their future. We can also help them remember events as pleasant ones by being upbeat ourselves. PetMD recommends remaining positive even as you bring your ‘baby’ to the vet. If you are worried, they will be worried. If your vet has grooming services, one thing you can do to create positive memories is to bring your cat or dog in for a nail trim or a soothing bath, so they can become more familiar with the staff under pleasant circumstances.
The best memory retention method for short term memory is repetition. So go do happy things together often.
Heron’s Crossing provides end-of-life care for pets in the Metro Atlanta area. In-home appointments with compassionate vets are available. If you’d prefer a home-like setting away from your home, our Decatur office is also available by appointment.