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Do Cats Hold Grudges? Science-Based Facts & FAQ

Genevieve Dugal

By Genevieve Dugal

angry cat hissing

Every owner of a feline companion knows the cat’s quintessential stink eye: your cat is sitting across the room, staring intently at you without blinking. No doubt about it, you did something that clearly offended your kitty! But is it really? Can your adorable furry friend be angry with you? And what’s more, can cats hold a grudge?

Rest assured: unlike what popular cat memes want you to believe, cats don’t hold grudges (or at least not the way we define that word).

Indeed, veterinarians and zoo therapists agree that cats can experience emotions ranging from happy to sad. So, cats can develop hurt feelings, even though they may not express them the same way you do.

What Does Holding a Grudge Mean?

Holding a grudge is feeling a sense of anger, bitterness, or resentment towards someone for something they’ve done, especially something you think they’ve done against you. It is brought on by a desire for revenge and occurs when a negative emotion such as jealousy, sadness, or fear is felt. It is also a feeling that is usually maintained for a long time.

So, when we refer to grudge, we are usually referring to deeply ingrained emotional resentment. However, this is typical human behavior.

In cats, a traumatic experience may cause them to avoid something or someone, but it is not out of anger or resentment. Indeed, one cannot justify this behavior by resentment because it would be anthropomorphism—attributing human traits to non-human entities. However, cats can retain memories of events that had a great emotional impact on them.

angry cat hissing
Image Credit: maturika, Pixabay

Cats Have Long-Term Memories

When you leave your cat alone for too long, you get the distinct impression that he is staring intently at you when you come back home. Likewise, when you scold him or punish him for some nonsense he has done, you are convinced that he is mad at you for days on end. But is this really the case? Are cats resentful?

Although experts agree that cats have both short- and long-term memory, measuring their exact memory duration is quite tricky. For example, if you do a quick Google search, you might come across articles that say cats are able to remember an event for 16 hours. But no scientific study proves this theory. However, it appears that the cat’s short-term memory is between 5 and 30 seconds, and long-term memory can stay almost indefinitely.

What triggers the formation of long-term memories the most are overwhelmingly positive or negative experiences. For example, if your cat was abused as a kitten, he will most likely develop a fear of humans that will stick with him. Your cat will also remember important events related to food and survival. Additionally, memories that have an emotional impact can affect your pet’s behavior throughout their life. And the kitten years are the most important, as these early memories are the most likely to stay with your pet and determine how he will behave in certain situations or people.

Resentment of Cats Can Be Mistaken for Anxiety

In fact, if cats behave strangely after something unpleasant has happened to them, it’s not because they hold a grudge but because they are stressed. Yet many cat owners tend to confuse these two emotions.

For example, if your cat ignores you or runs away from you when you return from vacation, it is quite simply because your return upsets the new habits he must have adopted when you left. And this is particularly stressful for him. Indeed, cats are creatures of habit, and if there is something that they hate, it is that their environment is changing.

So, that’s also why he’s been urinating in bed since your partner moved in with you. It is not out of revenge but simply to demarcate its territory and feel safe at home again. This is called territorial anxiety.

sad cat
Image Credit: avi_acl, Pixabay

Resentment of Cats Can Be Mistaken for Fear or Mistrust

Likewise, if your cat snubs you for a few hours after being scolded, it’s probably because he associates you with negative emotion. Indeed, our feline friends do not necessarily understand the notion of punishment. So, when they do something stupid, they have absolutely no idea that they are doing something wrong. It doesn’t even occur to them for the simple reason that all of their behavior is driven by their natural and, at times, wild instincts.

For example, scratching is a basic need, essential to their survival. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s on a tree or a sofa. They don’t understand what a difference it makes. Therefore, if you scold your cat for scratching your furniture, he will take it as aggression. He will therefore tend to be wary of you until he gradually forgets your altercation.

So, you will understand, cats are not resentful and are not capable of sulking. On the contrary, they are even rather indulgent with our changing moods. And if they display unusual behaviors, it is most often out of anxiety, fear, or mistrust.

Good to know: Cats are very sensitive beings, so they can quickly associate a place, a noise, or a person with a negative feeling. It may even stay in their memory for a long time if the feeling is strong (for example, a traumatic visit to the vet may be enough for them to experience panic fear of the vet afterward).

yowling cat
Image Credit: coyot, Pixabay

How To Read Your Cat’s Body Language?

If your cat seems angry or annoyed with you, he may leave the area you are in or sit and look at you from across the room, just observing your movements. Sometimes it’s best to give your cat some room to calm down, especially if something is stressing him out.

Your Cat Is Stressed

A stressed or fearful cat will tend to hide because its instinct is to flee stressful or new situations. If he can’t go into hiding, his body language will speak for itself:

  • Body: Its back is arched, and its hairs are raised. He tries to appear “bigger” to intimidate his potential enemy.
  • Tail: His hair appears fluffier, and it is constantly moving.
  • Eyes: His pupils are dilated.
  • Behavior: Stressed cats may also urinate and defecate outside of the litter box. They can walk with a flat back, ears, head, and tail down.
red and white tabby cat caterwauling
Image Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay

Your Cat Is Angry

Sometimes anger and aggression in cats are not recognized until it is too late, and the cat has already scratched or bit someone. Cats can have short tempers, and their anger can escalate quickly when extremely stressed or scared, but they give warning signs:

  • Body: His whole body is tense and motionless; the attack is imminent.
  • Tail: The tail is straight like an arrow or is constantly moving.
  • Eyes: The gaze is fixed and intense.
  • Ears: The ears are flattened backward.
  • Behavior: The cat hisses and growls, its ears are totally flattened, and it seems to frown its nonexistent brow.

If you notice these signs, leave your cat alone and exit the room. Your cat needs to calm down, and he is very good at doing it on his own, without you adding to his anxiety. Indeed, your animal uses its body language to express to you very clearly that it is about to bite and scratch.

However, if your cat regularly shows these signs of aggression, fear, and anxiety, he may be hiding some disease. Therefore, you should contact your veterinarian so that he can detect any issues underlying this abnormal behavior.

Final Thoughts

Cats are mysterious animals whose behavior often leaves us perplexed. Some of their actions, interpreted as resentful by the owner, are rather considered anti-stress strategies by veterinarians and experts in feline behavior. Your cat does, however, have expressive body language that can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that he is agitated, anxious, or angry. Pay attention to these signs, but don’t worry if your cat seems to sulk at you when you get back from your trip: extra treats and petting will quickly make him forget your temporary absence!

Featured Image Credit: Fang_Y_M, Pixabay

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