Cats may have episodic memory like people, dogs

Cats’ memories may work in a similar way to the memories of humans and dogs, who are able to remember details of past experiences.

A study from researchers in Hungary last fall showed that dogs have the ability to recall past events. Now, researchers in Tokyo may have discovered the same of cats. Taking 49 domesticated cats, researchers tested whether they could retain memories from a single past experience. The study was published in the January 2017 issue of Behavioural Processes.

The research team tested cats on eating from bowls. In the first stage, they left out four open bowls with food and allowed cats to eat from two of them. The bowls were emptied of food and 15 minutes later, the cats explored the empty bowls. Then, they were let in a third time, with two bowls containing food, one a nonedible item, and one was empty and the cats could eat from one.

Results showed that “cats first visited the remaining baited-uneaten container significantly more often than chance and they spent more time exploring this container.” By exploring bowls they did not eat from for longer, this suggests cats retrieved “what” and “where” information. They did not need to explore bowls with food they had already eaten from because they knew the contents.

By exploring the bowls with food less, this suggests the cats were not simply approaching the bowls associated with a pleasant experience, but utilizing an incidentally encoded memory from a single experience.

The researchers suggest that it might be possible that cats are able to recall memories on demand, possibly even using pleasant ones to entertain themselves.

The results could tie into the trend of Fear FreeSM veterinary visits. Saho Takagi, a psychologist at Kyoto University and lead researcher on the study, said their findings suggest that a cat’s fear of visiting the veterinarian could be tied to memories of previous visits. She said that creating more calming visits could have an effect on cats’ memories, not just emotions, to make them less fearful on future visits. While this study looked at times much shorter than the months between veterinary visits, cats could have memories that extend beyond the times tested, and the researchers plan to conduct additional studies to find out.

In addition to adding to the research on memory, learning more about how cats think could improve their relationships with their owners.

Photo credit: © iStock/MilanEXPO

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