Do Cats Remember Being Abandoned?

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With an estimated total of 3.2 million cats entering U.S. animal shelters every year, it’s sad to say that many of our feline friends have faced trauma and heartbreak.

Not every rescue cat has been abandoned, but being dumped, left behind, and forgotten are unfortunate trends. Animal shelters accept as many of these abandoned animals as possible and do their best to find them new homes.

Even in best-case scenarios and perfect adoptions, however, we can’t erase a cat’s past. From the moment a pet is left on the side of the road or dumped with a hostile colony of feral cats, they are forever changed. The question many animal rescuers ask themselves is, “Do cats remember being abandoned?” And if so, what can we do to help?

Your Cat’s Memory for Short-Term Information

Like humans, cats have two different types of memory. Short-term memory, also called the working memory, is the ability to recall facts and information for up to minutes at a time. This is how people remember their server’s name at a restaurant and how cats know that you hid the catnip bag behind your back.

Studies on feline short-term memory give a wide range of answers to how well cats remember things in the moment. A study from 2006, for example, found that cats had a very limited short-term memory (only a few seconds) when it came to finding hidden objects. Another experiment conducted in 2007, however, found that cats have excellent short-term memories when faced with visual and physical challenges. In this study, cats were encouraged to walk a path that required them to step over obstacles.

Even when the cats could no longer see the obstacles, they remembered they were there and successfully stepped over them. This experiment also utilized repetition, which scientists believe reinforces short-term memory.

It’s hard to say exactly how much a cat remembers short term events, but PetMD reports feline memories are especially strong when it comes to their own survival and well-being. They’ll remember where you accidentally dropped a treat under the couch, for example, but they might not care to remember something else that isn’t directly related to food, water, or shelter.

Assuming cats have an adequate short-term memory, how does that relate to their experiences being abandoned?

Being left behind by someone they previously relied on for survival is both emotionally and physically triggering. Being in a new environment or suddenly being without their usual comforts is impossible to ignore. In fact, the related negative emotions are usually strong enough to create memories that last much longer.

Experts report that when a cat remembers events, they most likely don’t replay the experience like a movie in their head like what humans tend to do.

The Power of Long-Term Memory

Like short-term memory, a cat’s long-term memory is especially strong when related to events that directly affect their current survival and well-being. Potentially even more impactful, however, are the emotions the cat felt during that specific experience. The stronger the emotion is, the more likely the cat is to remember it.

Whether or not a cat will remember the exact moment they saw their irresponsible human drive off, however, is different than remembering the feelings associated with that experience. Experts report that when a cat remembers events, they most likely don’t replay the experience like a movie in their head like what humans tend to do. Instead, they remember the strong emotions associated with the event.

An abandoned cat won’t remember what shirt their person was wearing the last time they saw them or even if they were driven in a car before being left all alone. They will, however, remember feelings of being scared, stressed, and confused.

Abandonment is always traumatizing. Knowing this, most feline experts agree that cats are more than capable of remembering the fact that they were once abandoned by people they used to trust. The emotions that become associated with that experience are likely so strong, that the cat can hold onto those retained feelings for years.

Senior Cat Wellness says cats can potentially remember significant feelings and events for up to 10 years. That ability wanes, however, as cats age and lose brain cells used for memory. It’s also believed that older cats are more likely to be affected by abandonment than kittens.

This is because they’ve had more time to grow accustomed to people, a daily routine, and environment. A sudden change is more life-altering for them than a kitten that has only been in a home for a few weeks.

How To Help Your Recently Abandoned Cat

If you suspect that your new cat remembers being recently abandoned, the best thing you can do is provide them with stability and time. Even without the added trauma of being abandoned, it can take anywhere from one to six months for a newly adopted cat to fully adjust to a new life. If your cat’s past was especially hard, it could be even longer for them to feel completely comfortable and secure in a loving home.

It’s not uncommon for recently rehomed cats to display behavioral issues including litter box mishaps, constant hiding, and even aggression. The American Veterinary Medical Association also reports that some cats going through a major change develop “sickness behaviors” even if they’re healthy. All of these behaviors suggest the cat is feeling stressed, scared, or confused.

They likely recognize that they’ve lost something (the stability from their previous home) and it will take time for them to recognize what they’ve also gained.

Talk to your vet if you fear your cat’s health is seriously at risk, but most newly adopted cats need to decompress from the stressors of adoption. Let them explore their new home at their own pace and offer rewards and positive reinforcement when appropriate.

Providing stability and affection (as long as it’s appreciated) is often the best way new owners can help a cat overcome anxieties and phobias associated with past experiences.

Being kind and patient with your new cat won’t erase their memory of being abandoned. It will, however, help them heal and move forward. With time, the trauma they experienced could fade into the background, and those hurtful emotions will no longer affect their everyday life.

Providing stability and affection (as long as it’s appreciated) is often the best way new owners can help a cat overcome anxieties and phobias associated with past experiences.

Also Read: Cat Separation Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

View Sources
Cats.com uses high-quality, credible sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the claims in our articles. This content is regularly reviewed and updated for accuracy. Visit our About Us page to learn about our standards and meet our veterinary review board.
  1. https://www.seniorcatwellness.com/do-cats-miss-their-owners-when-rehomed/

  2. https://avmajournals.avma.org/view/journals/javma/238/1/javma.238.1.67.xml

  3. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6689849_Long-Lasting_Context-Dependent_Modification_of_Stepping_in_the_Cat_After_Repeated_Stumbling-Corrective_Responses

  4. https://www.petful.com/behaviors/cats-memories/

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About Amber King

Amber's pet writing career started when her strong-willed and understandably anxious rescue dog, Copper, inspired her to write about her experiences training and loving such a beloved family member. Since then, she has welcomed more dogs, cats, foster cats, and chickens into her life. She uses her experiences with her own pets as well as lessons learned by volunteering with animal shelters to help other pet people better understand and care for their furry best friends.

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8 thoughts on “Do Cats Remember Being Abandoned?”

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  1. Jim Reopelle

    We fostered then adopted two CH cats after their owner of five years dies. We had let our previous cat out onto our second story deck to get fresh air and see the birds and squirrels, so we decided to open the patio door and see what these two thought about it. They bolted straight out the door without hesitation and started enjoying the outside, which we thought was odd. The other time was when we first opened the bedroom door to them and the male wanted on the bed, which we helped him up onto. He proceeded to be giddy and playful in a way we hadn’t seen from him and again thought interesting. We later found the previous owners Facebook page which had videos of the two. And there in the video we saw her letting the cats out onto her patio which was enclosed and full of plants. The pair were running around and hiding behind the plants just like on our deck. The next video was her playing with the male on the bed and him bouncing around acting giddy and playful. I don’t know how many tests have been done and what the tests have been, but our belief by what we experienced is that they do have long term memory.

    Reply
  2. Linda

    My husband and I relocated from Germany back home to Australia and we’ve taken our German cat with us. He needs to stay in quarantine for 30 days and I wonder if he will also experience these feelings of abandonment and not trust us after so long apart and in a different environment. I’ll have to wait and see how he is once he’s back with us. I hope he’s ok.

    Reply
    1. Karina

      Hi,
      I just saw this comment and was wondering how your kitty is doing ? I was looking for jobs in Australia and New Zealand a few years ago but then the cat distribution system did its magic and it just wouldn’t make sense for us to move there anymore if it can be avoided to have to separate our cats from their home. This was definitely a deciding factor for us whether or not I’d still like to move there. My husband and I did long distance between Germany & the US and thankfully there’s no quarantine in either country so we were very fortunate to not have to deal with this when it was time to move back!

      Reply
      1. Carol A

        Well I have not moved to a different country with cats but moved across the US twice with cats . They take awhile to adjust but if they have interesting stuff to look at and comfy surrounding they do fine. I would not suggest letting them outdoors until they are fully acclimated to the new home and you know the hazards in the area and a plan to keep your pets safe when outside.

        Reply
  3. Mary J

    There was a stray that came by my parents house now and then. He was extremely friendly and definitely wasn’t just a stray. No one owned him , no reply from posters around the neighborhood, Or online, No microchip , Nothing. After a few months of feeding him when I was there and spending a little more time with it, my husband and I made the decision to keep him and bring him into our home ( even though we definitely didn’t want / plan on having another cat because we already had 4 indoor ) but the weather was getting colder and colder and couldn’t imagine him being outside any longer. Long story short, we took him to the vet …the poor thing was filthy and covered in fleas, had worms ,earmites, etc etc….he was bathed and was actually a handsome light orange cat. He was FILTHY! We thought he was gray in color the entire time! Lol
    Upon being in our home , he had his own room with everything he needed or could of ever wanted until it was ok to be with our other cats. He ended up drooling relentlessly and was scared of toys and alot of things. You could tell that he was never brushed before or played with. After a little time , we took him back to the vet because of the drooling. The vet indeed said it was anxiety, so he took some medication and I spent A LOT more time with him… Everything got so much better when he knew he was going to be ok. A little more time went on and We got him fixed and around the same time, he was finally able to meet the others. Everything went well, very well . It was the easiest transition I’ve ever had with cats. He had a few accidents but everything got better. It’s been 5 years now and he is thee greatest cat I have EVER had. So polite. Extremely lovable. He has NEVER begged , bit or even scratched me or anyone! He is literally my tail and where I go he is right by my side ALWAYS. We do everything together and I’ve had A Lot of cats in my life and have never had just an over all gentle, most loving pet in my life. It’s like he’s so greatful and it shows. He just wanted to be loved . To think that such a gorgeous , lovable, kind , and over all real stuffed animal could of been all alone and not loved or cared for breaks my heart. This cat was not just found and had his life saved, he also saved MY life as well. I believe this cat was meant to find me and I him.
    It gives me chills everytime I think of our story. It’s much longer and detailed than I can write on here. Absolutely amazing!
    I always wonder what would of been if we never met. It makes me also wonder about all the other strays out there and how they could also be the same, if only given the chance. It all breaks my heart. I am very lucky as I know he is too. It was Absolutely meant to be and I know I will never have another like him. He’s absolutely incredible! He would be the Perfect cat in a movie or something because he’s that gentle and loves everyone. I’ve honestly never seen a cat like this..So so greatful and it shows . One of a kind for sure ♡

    Reply
  4. Krysta

    Our little girl, now 5 years old, became part of our family in October, 2020. We had gone to a local store that supports rescues, and when we saw her curled up in her cage, we thought she was beautiful. I reached in and she immediately put her paw on my hand, and she didn’t want to let me go. She did the same with our hubby. Then she stood and jumped down out of her cage and started rubbing against our legs and was purring so loud. We immediately knew that we had been chosen, and she captured our hearts from the moment she put her paw on our hands. We brought her home and the transition was so easy. She immediately started exploring, drank some water, had a few bites of food, used her litter box, and then curled up in my lap. She stayed curled up with me and hubby the whole weekend. She did fine when we went to work the following Monday. She is so sweet! I hate to think of how she ended up in foster care! She was just fine until the first thunderstorm came the following spring. It wasn’t a loud storm, just a 10 minute, ordinary storm. Our poor girl started shaking so bad, and then hid under the couch for 3 hours. Every time she heard even soft thunder in the distance, she’d shake abs then run and hide. I think she may have been caught outside in a bad storm all alone before she was found by the rescue. I began working with her every time it stormed to help her associate them with good and positive things. Her favorite food, affection, soothing music, being comforted. Eventually, she became less terrified. She began to seek me out for comfort after a while, and then one day, she stayed in her kitty tree and watched a storm with us and she realized that they’re not so bad. She will still hide if the storm is really bad with hail and loud thunder and high winds, but she’s fine with the regular ones. Cats definitely have long term memories of the emotions associated with traumatic experiences, but they can definitely be overcome with lots of love, patience, understanding, and rewards. We love our girl so much, and now I don’t feel so bad when a storm comes through while we’re at work, as long as it’s not a severe storm, because she’ll be OK.

    Reply