Cats, just like humans, can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after experiencing a traumatic event. While they don’t have long-term memory like humans, cats are great at associations, especially with very positive or negative experiences.
When cats experience something at one extreme of the (positive-negative) spectrum, they will associate that experience with the sights, sounds, and smells they experienced simultaneously.
If the experience by the cat was a very negative one, these sights, sounds, and smells become emotional triggers for the cat and bring out defensive behaviors.
If you think your cat has been traumatized, the good news is that PTSD doesn’t have to last forever. There are ways to help your cat heal.
Read on to learn more about PTSD in cats and how you can help your cat heal from their trauma.
What can cause a cat to be traumatized?
Just like in humans, trauma is an onerous burden for cats to carry. Trauma manifests itself as fear and anxiety disorders in cats, leading to behavioral changes and sometimes aggressive behavior.
Many cats are given to shelters because the cat owners simply don’t know how to handle these changes in behavior, and they don’t know what caused the trauma in the first place.
Cats can be traumatized by a variety of events, including:
- Stressful environments
- Loss of close family or other pet
- A life-threatening event like a car accident, natural disaster, or predator attack
How long do cats remember traumatic events?
Unlike dogs who had packs to rely on, cats are solitary hunters. When wild cats hunt, they must rely on their problem-solving skills and quick thinking to keep themselves safe and ensure they get fed. Because of this, their short-term memory is actually better than a dog’s.
Generally, a cat’s short-term memory is typically compared to a 2 to 3-year-old child. They can remember approximately 16 hours at a time, but a cat’s long- and short-term memory differs from cat to cat.
In a study by the University of British Columbia, some cats’ short-term memories lasted more than 24 hours.
There is less research on a cat’s long-term memory. Still, they can have emotional responses to triggers 10-15 years after the traumatic event, depending on the cat and the severity of the trauma.
Here is how long a cat will typically remember a traumatic event:
Trauma response has an evolutionary purpose. Cats are naturally predisposed to remember abuse to keep themselves safe in the future.
In the wild, they would know to avoid a particular place or person after the abuse has occurred; at home, a cat locked in a small room for 2 days might become fearful to even go near that space.
Because of this, cats hang on to abused memories for a long time, often 10-15 years. Sometimes, a cat will remember abuse for the rest of their lives.
However, because they remember the abuse doesn’t mean they will bear the grudge forever. It is still possible for a cat to heal and forgive the abuse from its past.
Stressful environments or extreme changes in your cat’s environment like a long-term shelter stay or a recent move can be traumatic for your cat.
Luckily, this trauma tends to be short-lived. If you provide a calm environment for your cat to adjust to, they’ll typically relax in 1-3 weeks.
How long your cat remembers being abandoned will depend on the circumstances of their abandonment.
Cats remember important people in their lives, and they can mourn the people who abandoned them for years.
Even if they don’t resent many traumatized symptoms, certain people’s appearances (like a hat or glasses) can trigger your cat to grieve their previous owners.
As previously mentioned, if the cat was abandoned in a stressful environment, that could be traumatic. Once they’ve been moved to a calmer environment, the trauma will fade in a few weeks.
Loss of close family or other pets
Just like humans, cats experience the stages of grief after the death of their owner, a close family member, or another family pet.
A study by the ASPCA observed behavior changes and physical symptoms in cats after a loss, like loss of appetite, restlessness, and disorientation.
As with humans, time heals all wounds. After 2-6 weeks, your cat will make their way through all of the grief stages and get back to normal behaviors.
Injuries from events like a fall from a tall height or accidentally burning its fur over a candle can be particularly traumatic for cats, not just because of the memories but also the recovery period from their injuries as well.
Depending on how long they sustain their injuries, they can remember these events for months or even years. Your cat may have an adverse reaction to cars, for example, for years after an accident.
However, once they’ve healed their injuries, they will also start to heal their emotional trauma.
Life-threatening events like house fires or natural disasters can be as traumatic for cats as they are for their owners. Like other trauma causes, the PTSD symptoms caused by these life-threatening events can persist for many years.
In fact, these symptoms sometimes don’t present themselves until months or years after the event. Without proper behavioral therapy, your cat could remember these events for 10-15 years.
How do I know if my cat has PTSD?
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn’t an illness or a disease. It’s classified as a change in behavior. Unfortunately, these changes can be misinterpreted as behavior problems that need to be disciplined instead of trauma that needs to be healed.
Even if you don’t know what caused your cat’s trauma, they may still have PTSD if they experience any of these symptoms:
- Frequent hiding
- Trembling, tucked tail, or other fearful behavior
- Loss of appetite
- Increased clinginess
- Lack of interest in playing or interacting with toys or people
- Destructive behaviors
- Abnormal urination or defecation behaviors (like going outside the litter box)
- Extreme fear response when triggers are present
How to help my cat forget a bad experience
Even though many events can create long-term trauma in cats, that trauma can be healed with work, patience, and care from loving owners.
These techniques can help relax your cat and lessen the effect of their trauma. Over time, depending on what caused their PTSD, they will forget (or at least forgive) what happened to them.
- Meet with a vet and cat behaviorist
The most important thing you can do to help your cat is to talk with your vet. They can analyze your cat’s symptoms and offer treatment options. They can also recommend a cat behaviorist with even more specialized knowledge to help your cat.
With these resources, you can start your cat on a combination of medication and drug therapy to help ease their anxiety.
- Learn your cat’s triggers
Most PTSD symptoms present themselves as a response to triggers. If you can learn what triggers your cat’s defensive reactions, you can actively avoid those triggers with your cat.
The longer your cat can avoid those triggers, the lower their stress levels will be and the easier it will be to forget their trauma.
- Create a calm, private environment
If a stressful environment causes your cat trauma, it’s essential to give your cat a new, calm environment where they can decompress and adjust.
Make sure they have a space they can go to be alone, whether that’s a spare bedroom, a basement, or a bathroom. If outside noises are stressing your cat out, consider a sound machine or TV in the room that can play calming music or sounds.
A synthetic pheromone diffuser is also a great tool to help calm your cat and reduce stress. These diffusers mimic the natural pheromones that cats produce.
- Provide activity and mental stimulation
Mental enrichment through games, toys, and puzzles gives your cat something to focus on that isn’t their own stress and anxiety. These activities naturally lower stress levels because your cat feels challenged and fulfilled.
You can use store-bought enrichment toys or create your own toys, puzzles, and activities to challenge your cat. Games that simulate hunting or foraging are perfect for lowering stress levels because they engage your cat’s natural instincts.
- Use supplements to reduce stress
Always talk to your vet before you start any supplement routine with your cat. You can use store-bought calming supplements specially formulated to reduce your cat’s stress levels.
Other supplements that can help reduce your cat’s stress levels include:
|Supplement||Benefit for Your Cat|
|Vitamins B1 (Thiamine) and B6||Support nervous and digestive systems, reduce stress, produce a healthier coat.|
|L-Theanine||Improves dopamine transition, fast-acting anxiety relief|
|Chamomile||Anti-inflammatory, relaxes muscles and reduces stress levels.|
|Catnip||Reduces anxiety and depression, acts as a sedative and reduces stomach pain.|
|Hops||Naturally reduce stress levels, good for the liver|
|Valerian||Lowers stress levels, induces sleep|
|Passionflower||Lowers stress, relaxes muscles, induces sleep|
Do cats forget traumatic events?
Like humans, how your cat heals from a traumatic event will differ from cat to cat.
With the proper treatment, help from professionals, and love from their owners, cats can forget their traumatic events and make a full recovery from their PTSD symptoms.