Every cat owner sometimes feels like their cat is mad at them, or holding a particular grudge. They may be giving you the cold shoulder, or leaving the room whenever you walk in. They may refuse to cuddle, and generally avoid your company.
When this happens, we will often ask ourselves if cats are even capable of holding a grudge. Do they have the capacity to feel the required emotions? How much do they remember, and for how long?
Let’s determine if your cat is just grumpy, or if you have done something to upset them.
Do Cats Hold Grudges?
Cat’s don’t hold grudges like we humans do, as they aren’t able to experience the same emotions. They do however associate specific actions and behaviors with positive or negative outcomes, and base their reactions on them.
Humans are prone to ascribing human emotions to animals. The reality is however that animals don’t see the world as we do, and operate mostly on instinct, and not emotion.
Cats aren’t able to harbor any long-term resentment towards a human being (or even another cat or other animal). They are however able to associate repeated actions with negative outcomes, and will avoid these situations as much as they can.
For example, if you have stepped on your cat’s tail by accident, they may now be avoiding you so as not to get hurt again. They are not avoiding you because they are holding a grudge.
While we don’t know what the memory span of a cat actually is, a relatively old study has determined that an adult cat can retain information for 16 hours. Dogs, on the other hand, have a memory of about 5 minutes.
Cats are also able to retain certain memories for much longer. For example, they will know how to open a door, when dinnertime is or where you keep the treats, and will remember not to jump on the stove if they have previously burned their paws, even if they haven’t been exposed to that particular trigger in over 16 hours.
In short: cats probably don’t have the emotional ability to hold a grudge. They are however able to retain specific memories for a long period of time, especially if trauma was involved.
How Long Does a Cat Hold a Grudge?
Even though cats don’t actually hold grudges, they may remain aloof and standoffish for several days if something has happened to upset or frighten them.
It is only our human perception that makes us think cats are holding a grudge when they are avoiding us or being less cuddly and affectionate than usual. However, this is most often caused by a specific trigger that is still ingrained in their memory.
Even when living in a safe domestic environment, a cat’s fight-or-flight response is incredibly acute. After all, this is how they have been able to survive over the years, and why they often thrive living on the street.
Aim to remain calm around your cat, and to provide as much positive reinforcement as you can. Eliminate as much of the negative stimuli as possible, like loud noises and unfamiliar smells, and they will soon start to feel more comfortable.
Do Cats Forgive?
Yes, cats will forgive you if you accidentally trip over them or run into them. As they aren’t actually capable of grudges, what we perceive as forgiveness is just the cat moving on with their lives.
Unless you keep doing the same unpleasant or upsetting thing to your cat over and over again, they will feel comfortable and safe in your company. However, if you repeatedly keep making the same mistake, they will remember the negative emotions, and may start to exhibit behaviors you perceive as “holding a grudge”, which are actually nothing more than a survival mechanism.
If you want to make your cat feel more relaxed, avoid doing the things they hate, and be mindful of their feelings and wants (within reason, of course).
Do Cats Remember Traumatic Events?
Yes, cats will remember traumatic events, sometimes for years, or even for their entire lifetime. When a cat has been exposed to an event that causes extreme fear, they are not likely to forget it.
For example, if a cat has been attacked by a dog, they will most likely fear all dogs in the future. If a cat has been abused by a human, they will need special care and behavior therapy to start trusting them again.
We don’t however know all that much about cat memory, or in fact about the way cats see the world. All we can know is that cats that have had a happy kittenhood are likely to be more social and less fearful as adults, and vice versa.
How to Tell Your Cat is Upset
Understanding your cat’s behavior is the first step in helping them feel more at home in your company. Here are some of the common clues that lead humans to believe their cat is holding a grudge:
- They are swishing their tail nervously, or their tail gets extra fluffy
- Their ears are flat and close to their head
- They are avoiding you and will go as far as leaving the room when you enter
- They pee outside their litter box, sometimes specifically on your clothes or bed
- Their whiskers droop
- They growl at you
- They are giving you “the look”
- They hide under the couch
- They bite you when you pet them
- They scratch or bite the furniture, especially when you are not home
In our human eyes, these behaviors make us think the cat is angry at us. However, they are in fact feeling something else: angry, frightened, bored. Take some time to analyze when the behavior has started and what you have started doing differently to pinpoint the cause of the change.
What You May Have Done to Upset Your Cat
Here are some of the things you may have been doing that are upsetting your cat, making you feel they are holding a grudge:
- Moving them while they are sleeping
- Making loud noises
- Repeatedly petting them in areas they don’t like (like their belly or tail)
- Petting them when they don’t want to be pet
- Picking them up when they don’t want to be picked up
- Annoying them while they are sleeping
- Not playing with them enough
- Stepping on their tail, tripping over them, accidentally kicking them
- Changing their feeding routine
- Not cleaning their litter box as often as you should
- Introducing a lot of unfamiliar smells all at once
- Staring at your phone or any other screen too much
- Paying attention to your other pets too much
- Ignoring them when they want attention
- Leaving them alone too often and for too long
As you can see, cats like things to be just so. The more time you spend around each other, the better you will understand their needs and the kinds of routines they like, and will be better able to offer positive stimuli and reinforcements.
How to Apologize to a Cat
There are many ways to apologize to a cat.
You will first need to time the apology carefully, as you don’t want to approach your cat when it wants to be left alone. Pet them slowly, give them a treat, or look into their eyes and blink at them slowly.
You can also bring an offering of a new toy, or a meal they particularly like.
Also make sure you are not delivering the apology after your cat has done something it shouldn’t be doing, as it will start to associate treats with the behavior, and won’t stop doing it.
Wrapping It Up
While cats don’t hold grudges, it’s easy to see why we sometimes believe they do. Cats can certainly give you that piercing stare, which we may interpret as a look of utter contempt. In reality, you have probably done something they weren’t a fan of, which is why they are now simply avoiding a repetition.