Dogs are well-known for their ability to learn and remember commands and tricks. Their memories can be so good that they can retrieve a specified toy from a pile of favorites.
Now, a new study shows that cats may be able to recall things like dogs do — a moment to be celebrated by cat lovers everywhere who know their feline friends are more clever than they're given credit for. (Perhaps the difference is that cats don't need to impress everyone as much as dogs do.)
Researchers from Japan gathered 49 cats to see if they could remember which food dishes they ate from and which they didn't. The cats were allowed to eat from two of four different containers of food. Then the cats were removed from the room for 15 minutes and the containers were swapped out for empty ones. The cats were returned to the room, and researchers found that they explored the containers from which they hadn't eaten for longer periods of time than those they had eat from.
Their exploration of the new containers suggests that the cats remembered food was in those containers and used what the researchers call "what" and "where" information to recall the presence of food from the earlier session. Researchers point out that this recall isn't associated with the pleasure of eating food, so the cats had "encoded" the information into their brains.
Tonight will be a memory, too
This recalling of where food was located would seem to indicate that cats have episodic memory, or the ability to recall details from past events. Dogs have been shown to have it, and we humans certainly have it. It's how we're able to recall what song was playing at a wedding or what someone wore a few days ago. If this is the case, then it's possible that cats may be able to remember things for much longer than just 15 minutes.
This sort of recall could also hint that cats have a rich interior world as well.
"Episodic memory is viewed as being related to introspective function of the mind; our study may imply a type of consciousness in cats," Saho Takagi, one of the researchers involved in the study, told BBC News.
"An interesting speculation is that they may enjoy actively recalling memories of their experience like humans."
So the next time you see your cat just staring into space, she may actually be remembering a particularly tasty bite of tuna, or that time you played with her a couple of weeks ago.