- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
A squinty-eyed stare. Feisty attitude. Apathetic demeanor. No doubt, these signs make us feel we’ve done something to deserve this reaction from our cats.
As pet parents, it can be a bit unnerving trying to figure out this apparent change in behavior. It may feel like our cats are holding a grudge against us. And it’s then only natural to worry about how long a grudge will last.
The idea that cats “hold grudges” may come from their general temperament and actions that can definitely feel like revenge or resentment. Perhaps your cat’s acting in ways they usually wouldn’t, like avoiding you, leaving stinky surprises outside their litter box, or scratching up furniture. The truth is it’s unlikely your cat is bent on revenge because of something you did, even though it might (really) feel that way to us humans.
Read on for how to maintain your relationship with your cat during times of feline expressions of friction.
Do Cats Really Hold Grudges?
Despite what it may seem like, cats aren’t capable of holding grudges as we humans understand them. A better explanation of this behavior, says Stephen Quandt, certified feline training and behavior specialist and founder of Cat Behavior Help, comes down to cats’ associations with us.
How long do cats remember events and people?
“We know that cats have long-term memories—and short-term, too—and there is evidence that they can remember people for up to about 10 years,” he says. “We also know that they can remember positive and negative associations with people, locations, and sounds as examples.”
But what they actually remember, like what was done to have upset them, is hard to quantify since we can’t truly know what they’re thinking, he adds.
If a cat experiences a scary or less-than-ideal event with someone, they may associate the event with that person, which can provoke a fear or avoidance response.
How do cats experience emotions?
“Cats grieve and mourn, but it may not be in the same way that humans do,” Quandt says. In some instances, such as the loss of a companion, the idea of permanent loss may not be available to them, but we typically think about sadness in connection to grief, he adds.
Grieving cats may search for their missing companion and vocalize for them. There may be other contexts when a cat is “sad.” However, it’s difficult to know exactly what they’re feeling. In all contexts with sadness, cats may show signs, such as depression, lethargy, and loss of appetite.
What’s more, Quandt explains cats don’t feel anger the way we do, either.
“There is no use for anger in cats outside in nature, but cats may appear angry because they’re stressed, anxious, fearful, or conflicted, and that may be expression by aggression, hissing, growling, or yowling,” he says.
Grudges are a human concept, and it’s best to avoid applying concepts like these to our felines. After all, cats are incapable of knowing what a “grudge” is. Instead of viewing their behavior as retaliatory it’s more helpful and productive to understand cats respond based on their survival instincts rather than emotions.
How Do Cats Feel About Their Owners?
Though we may view our cats as being fiercely independent, studies have shown they do remember—and care!—about us. Cats know their names and can distinguish between their pet parent’s voice and others, as well as get attached to their people similarly to how dogs do.
In one particular study researching attachment styles in cats and their pet parents, the majority of kittens displayed behaviors that indicated a secure attachment to their pet parent as a human infant would with their parent! Researchers found cats’ attachment styles were stable and present also in adulthood.
“Cats absolutely make associations between people and how they feel,” Quandt says. He shares that his blind-from-birth cat, Jenny, will often hiss at a stranger if they get too close, but she never hisses at him, her pet parent.
He adds that there’s certainly a sliding scale in how cats react to negative events. The worse the “memory,” the longer it’ll last and the deeper it’ll be.
What Is Making You Think Your Cat’s Mad at You?
Cats can be difficult to read at times, but their body language will always give some kind of insight into how they’re feeling—especially if they’re annoyed or uncomfortable.
Signs of irritation or discomfort in cats may include:
- Sideways (propeller) ears
- Dilated pupils
- A hunched or tight body
- Skin ripples
- Puffed fur (piloerection)
- A swishy tail
- Running away or hiding
Another pet, or cat across the street, or even another family member could be to blame. Your cat could be having an irritable day! One way to know these signs are directed specifically toward you is to consider if you’ve done anything directly, like wake your cat from a nap or accidentally step on their tail. (The worst feeling!) Another thing to consider is if there was any disruption in their routine, such as a trip to the vet or if you left for an extended period of time.
“Body language followed by vocalizations are the best cues as to what your cat doesn’t like,” Quandt says.
If you notice these signs in your cat, these are context cues they’re using to let you know that they dislike something or are annoyed.
What Irritates Your Cats & Will They Forgive You?
Though we have our cats’ best interests in mind, some of the things we do out of love can be seen as an infringement in their eyes.
Quandt says some of the actions we do that can annoy our cats can include:
- Rough play
- Grooming (e.g. nail trims and baths)
“How [cats] make associations with things as young kittens can have a lifelong impact,” he explains. “Really, anything that interferes with your cat’s quiet enjoyment of life can be felt as an infringement.”
We never want our cats to be upset with us. After all, we’re their pet parents, and we love them dearly! Quandt stresses that as long as you respect your cat’s limits or you do things that are necessary for them, you shouldn’t feel bad or guilty for doing them.
In these situations, it’s best to give your cat their space. The amount of time they need will depend on their behavior, Quandt says.
To reconnect with your cat, he recommends coaxing them with treats or play. However, they need to demonstrate that they’re ready to do so. Providing enrichment and positive interactions—especially with food—is a great way to get back in your cat’s good graces. And fortunately, Quandt says cats forgive us by forgetting and moving on.
How Can You Rebuild Trust & Apologize To Your Cat?
Jenae Stainer, LCSW, a therapist at Bespoke Treatment, says you could verbally apologize to your cat the same way you would a human. However, they may not hold the same weight due to cats’ limited cognitive understanding and language skills for processing apologies.
Nevertheless, she says it’s a practice worth considering to alleviate your own distress or guilt from inadvertently causing harm or distress to your feline friend.
The key is to get your cat to trust you and reconnect. Some cats might prefer an apology in the form of space and come to you when they’re ready. Others might prefer comforting gestures, like petting them or showering them in forms of enrichment (e.g. puzzle toys and tasty treats).
Now, should you apologize to your cat every time you might’ve annoyed or upset them? Stainer says it depends on how you personally feel and the potential impact your actions may have had on your cat.
Ultimately, you know your cat best! By apologizing to your cat, in whichever form they prefer, you can be sure they’re comforted and maintain a positive relationship with them.