The common perception of cats in our psyche is that they hold grudges forever. You upset your kitty tonight? Expect her to be angry at you tomorrow morning, and for the rest of her life. She might even glower at you from the Rainbow Bridge. However, when I actually watch my cats’ behavior, that image dissolves. They’re upset for a few minutes, and then everything’s fine, especially if I make a peace offering. Do cats forgive us?
My cats get most upset with me when I take them to the vet. For obvious reasons, they do not like visiting the vet. On the way there, they’ll cry in their carriers, but on the way home, they’re curled up as small as possible in the back. When we get home, they run and hide. You might think my cats forgive me for when they’re good and ready, and not before.
However, with treats, or their meals, or even just a tentative, friendly scritch of their ears, they’re wholly ready to forgive and forget the whole unfortunate episode. The question, though, is whether they actually do forgive me, or if it just appears they do.
Science currently disagrees that cats forgive us, or anyone
Scientists have observed actual conciliatory behavior in other species, but not in cats. While New York Magazine concedes that the bulk of that research has been done on primates—specifically, bonobos, gorillas and chimps—they have studied other species, and found conciliatory behavior in them, too. However, they have yet to find evidence that cats forgive, either us or each other.
Could whether cats forgive actually have to do with memory?
A lot of people assume that cats only retain memories for a few minutes (they assume that of dogs, too). However, according to Canidae, cats’ short term memory is actually about sixteen hours. If your cat forgives you for taking her to the vet within an hour of getting home, it may be that she’s forgotten, but it’s more likely that she feels better now that she’s back in the comfort of home.
Being back in the comfort of home has to do with her associative memory. The smells, sights and sounds are all familiar to her, and if your home is a warm and loving one, all of those things work together to make her remember that home is a safe and fun place. That’s as opposed to the vet’s office, where the sights, smells and sounds all have a negative association for her. So perhaps she hasn’t forgiven you, per se, but since she associates home with happy feelings, it seems as though she’s forgiven you because she’s relaxed again.
That’s why treats work to help her feel better, too. The treats are tasty, and she gets them when she’s been good, done something right, or just because. So, if you give her treats after you’ve upset her, it likely helps to relax her and make her feel better.
So, whether cats forgive us not is a question that doesn’t yet have an answer. However, like I do with my cats, we can take comfort from the idea that they don’t hold grudges against us for very long.