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Do Cats Hold Grudges? How A Cat’s Fear and Anxiety May Seem Like a Grudge  

Do Cats Hold Grudges? How A Cat’s Fear and Anxiety May Seem Like a Grudge  

✔ This article was reviewed for accuracy by a licensed veterinarian.

“Cats don’t forgive.” According to cat-behavior expert John Bradshaw at Bristol University in England. “Once they realize that someone or something causes them pain, they stay away.”

But, do cats hold grudges? The short answer is no

Cats are predators to some, and prey to many. They are genetically programmed to survive, and their survival depends on their ability to escape sticky situations, and remember to avoid them in the future.

So a cat that may seem to be holding a grudge is more likely acting out of fear in order to protect itself.

Fear is a defensive mechanism. Fear keeps cats from repeated injuries. Fear keeps cats alive.

Our team researched this topic extensively over the course of a week, working closely with our staff vet to validate our findings and receive her input on the question. In this post, you will learn more about how cats operate and better understand how fear and anxiety can look like a grudge.

We cover the following items in this post:

How Good Is a Cat’s Memory?

Do cats hold grudges?
I seem to remember everything you’ve ever done to disappoint me. It’s time to knock some things over as I attempt revenge.

Before we can understand if a cat can hold a grudge, we need to determine how good a cat’s memory is.

There are conflicting studies on how good a cat’s memory is, but many believe that, in general, cats have good memories. The issue is that cats aren’t always responsive. This can lead you to wonder if your cat remembers what your request means, or if they’ve decided to ignore you. (Mine ignore me often.)

Like humans, our feline friends have both short and long-term memory.

  • Short-Term Memory in Cats: A 2005 study proved that cats have a short-term memory. A cat’s working memory for disappearing objects was proven to be limited, but working. The longer the duration an object was hidden, the tougher it was for the cat to retain the information.
  • Long-Term Memory in Cats: A 2017 study proved that cats also have long-term memory. The findings included a statement that reads: “Cats retrieved and utilized both “what” and “where” information from a single event.” Simply put: cats can recall past events and experiences. 

And like humans, cats have an easier time recalling memories from traumatic and powerful events. So if a cat was abused, scared, or felt safe in a time of great uncertainty – they’re more likely to retain those memories.

Are Cats Forgiving Animals?

Cats are forgiving animals. 

Think about if you’ve ever accidentally walked into your cat and kicked them, or purposefully sprayed them with water for being bad. Have they packed their bags and moved out yet?

This doesn’t mean they won’t get upset by an incident, regardless of it was a mistake. And if there is a pattern of pain and trauma – your cat will likely not be as forgiving.

Cats need to be able to survive in the wild, so they retain information to help them in doing so. An environment that is consistently traumatic will be remembered as such and a cat won’t be as forgiving.

Cats Don’t See, Hear, or Smell The World The Way We Do

Sometimes when your cat seems to be upset for no reason at all, there is something going on that you can’t detect.

Cats have exceptional hearing. Cats can hear a greater range of frequencies than humans, especially the ultrasonic chattering of mice and rats. Their pinna, part of a cat’s outer ear, is movable to enable them to funnel faint sounds into the cat’s ear. 

A cat may accidentally harm itself while your phone is ringing one day. If it was a traumatic event for the cat, it may also associate your ringtone with fear and pain.

Cats are nearsighted. They don’t see objects more than about 20 feet (6 meters) away very clearly. But their eyes are very good at detecting motion when there is very little light. That’s how they hunt. A dog outside the window at night that you can’t even see, or hear, can trigger a reaction in a cat.

A cat’s brain is hard-wired to go into hunting mode when it sees sudden movement. Cats are natural predators

Cats can smell extremely well. Cats have 5 to 10 times the smell detectors in the nerves in their noses than humans. They may associate a fear-invoking event with an odor people can’t smell. When they encounter the odor again, they may experience fear again.

Consider the ways your cats perceive the world differently when their behavior leads you to wonder “Do cats hold grudges?” Sometimes your cat’s acting out doesn’t have anything to do with you at all. 

So what may seem to you as a grudge of sorts, may simply be a reaction to a previous traumatic event with your cat trying to protect itself.

Cats Can Communicate Fear and Aggression Through Posture

Cats use a range of postures, facial expressions, and tail positions to communicate fear, aggressive intent, or both. 

Small animals like cats don’t get involved in fights they aren’t likely to win unless their fear is overwhelming. Recognizing the signals your cat sends you to tell you things aren’t right gives you a chance to defuse the situation.

Body posture tells you whether your cat is calm, upset, intends to freeze, or intends to fight. 

  • A calm cat walks with its head held high and abdomen above the floor. It may have its tail curved and up, walking leisurely.
  • A more fearful cat crouches down to protect its abdomen. It may arch its back to make itself look bigger. This is usually a bluff. As the cat becomes more and more fearful, it may back into a corner, raise its tail upright, open its mouth wide to bare its teeth, and hiss. This is a cat that is ready to strike out because of some kind of fear.

Most cats will run away from things that make them fearful if they can. My cats run away from leaves sometimes if they move by us too fast when we’re out on cat leashes

They aren’t likely to be acting out if they can find a way to avoid conflict. But when a cat looks ready to leap out of a corner, it is a good idea to stand back.

Cats also communicate their feelings with their tails. 

  • Holding the tail vertically or wrapping the tail around the hindquarters signals friendly intentions. 
  • Holding the tail straight down or perpendicular to the floor is a sign of aggression. 

A cat lashes its tail from side to side when very agitated, annoyed, or in conflict. This is a signal that the claws are about to come out.

Cats Can Communicate Fear Through Their Facial Expressions

Do cats hold grudges?
I said “hiss”. Now back away and come back when you have some treats, Susan.

Cats communicate fear through posture slowly, but they telegraph their emotions through their facial expressions almost instantly. This is particularly true of your cat’s ears.

  • Ears are erect when a cat is focusing on a particular sound. 
  • Cats swivel their ears downward when they feel fearful and defensive. 
  • When a cat feels aggressive, it swivels its ears so the inside of the pinna, the hairless side of the ear, faces outward.

Reflex reactions change the shape of a cat’s pupils in response to emotions. 

  • A cat in a normal, happy state has slit pupils. Think of a line down the middle of your cat’s eyes. A medium-sized slit indicates a calm, relaxed, and content cat.
  • A cat in a distressed state has wide and dilated pupils. For instance, when the cat is experiencing a fight-or-flight response. 

Your cat will blink at you when it is seeking reassurance in a difficult situation. Fortunately, there is something you can do when your cat blinks at you hoping you will help: blink back! A slow blink from your cat is known as a “cat kiss” and you can kiss them back.

Remember that cats find sudden movements exciting. Blink back to your cat slowly to communicate that you will offer protection and comfort. But keep in mind that cats appreciate eye contact only from people they know and trust. 

Avoid prolonged eye contact with a cat you do not know and who does not know you. It’s okay to blink in the general direction of an excited cat you do not know, but do not stare.

How to Tell If a Cat Is Mad At Its Owner

These are common signs that your cat may be irritated and may need to cool off:

  • Hiding from you. Whether in another room or under some furniture.
  • Hissing or growling at you.
  • Avoiding your touch and other affectionate actions. Ducking away from you petting it or avoiding eye contact with you.
  • Avoiding its food.
  • Maintaining a low tail. Possibly twitching or wagging its tail from side to side.
  • Maintaining its ears low and flat. Maybe they’re pinned back against its head.
  • Swiping at you. 

Your cat may be irritated with you, but they are also likely trying to escape what they deem to be an uncomfortable situation. This may be you accidentally bumping them, purposefully spraying them, or another traumatic event or reminder of a traumatic event.

Also, a cat may not be mad at you at all. Your cat may be dealing with its own discomfort, but you may be unable to tell. If something else has made your cat uncomfortable, it won’t necessarily want you there to try and make it feel better. 

Whatever the cause of the discomfort and apparent anger – give your cat time to cool off!

Let them come to you. Place some treats out and their favorite toys. In time, all will be forgiven.

Causes of Feline Aggression That Can Be Misunderstood As a Grudge

Do cats hold grudges?
Owwww! You stepped on my tail, Carl. I will never forgive you. That is unless you share some of that Chinese food with me.

Cats act out aggression for many reasons that don’t have anything to do with how you treat them. Here is just a partial list of causes of feline fear and aggressiveness:

  • The memory of a previous negative experience.
  • Pain-associated aggression. Aggression might be your cat’s way of telling you there is some painful condition that needs treatment.
  • Inadequate socialization as a kitten. Leaving the cat fearful of different people, places, and experiences.
  • Loud noises.
  • Unpleasant smells.
  • Owner anxiety.
  • Physical punishment.
  • Redirected aggression.

Those last two points require special attention. Cats don’t have human sensibilities. A cat that sprays the sofa, for instance, is just signaling to other cats “I’m here!” The cat won’t understand if you come along half a day later and try to punish it for this action.

Even if you punish a cat instantly for, say, nipping at you, the message conveyed may not be “Biting is bad” but rather “The human can hurt you, be careful.” It just doesn’t work to punish bad behavior in cats. 

Cats, by and large, only respond to rewards for good behavior. Positive reinforcement is a superpower that should be used.

Another issue in feline care is redirected aggression. Sometimes cats are exposed to situations that put their lives in danger about which they can do nothing. Suppose your cat sees a large, angry, dangerous dog baring its teeth at the cat through the window. Or worse, that dog chases your cat to the top of the refrigerator or under the bed.

Cats that cannot respond to immediate danger sometimes lash out at other cats, children, or adults in the family once the life-threatening danger has passed. 

They are so traumatized that they “defend” themselves when major threats have passed. The best thing to do with cats in this state is to give them time to let their anxiety and possible aggression pass

Maybe put some treats out, play some calming music, and let them come to you. Set a relaxing environment and let them know they’re home, safe, and can trust you.

And do your best to protect them from ever repeating that terrible experience again.

When cats fight, freeze, fidget, or flee, they are almost acting self-protectively. The sooner you intervene to stop a frightening event, and the more positive experiences you give your cat, especially as a kitten, the fewer times your cat will seem to be holding a grudge.

What Does All of This Have To Do With The Question: Do Cats Hold Grudges?

Cats don’t really hold grudges. They remember situations that make them afraid. If you recognize your cat’s fear signals, you can intervene to prevent a situation that can leave your cat with lifelong trauma.

Do you like going to the dentist’s office? 

You see them usually twice a year and are likely stressed out by this specialist picking at your teeth and gums. Now imagine your dentist doesn’t speak your language, can control your body however they please, and you barely recognize the office you’re in.

Going to the vet may be a traumatic event for your cat. Riding in a carrier, sitting in a car, entering a foreign place, and having someone they’re not entirely familiar with poke and prod them. Oh, and you’re not in the room to comfort them most of the time.

So, your cat may seem pissed at you for putting them through this experience. 

However, your cat is more likely stressed from the culmination of events that they don’t endure in their normal, day-to-day life. So they may seem extra pissy with you, but they more likely just need some time back home to cool down and be reminded that they are safe and loved in that environment. 

How To Apologize To a Cat

If your cat is avoiding you, it’s only natural to want to “make up,” in order to repair your bond and restore a good relationship. 

Avoid the temptation to force affection on your cat. While you may think that a good snuggle would smooth things over, that approach is likely to backfire. Forcing your cat to be held or petted is likely to make the problem even worse! 

Instead, encourage your cat to be near you in subtle ways. 

  • Sit down several feet away from your cat’s food bowl at mealtimes, to encourage your cat’s approach without actually pursuing your cat. 
  • If your cat has a favorite bed or blanket, move that bed or blanket next to your usual spot on the couch, in order to subtly encourage your cat to come close. 
  • If your cat is playful, use toys that will allow your cat to engage from a safe distance, such as a teaser wand

You can also play some soothing music for your cat to try and help them relax. The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery found that music specific for cats may lead to a decrease in stress levels and an increase in quality vet care. So why not try it when your cat is clearly stressed at home? The below video is a great one to try out:

The goal is to encourage your cat to approach you, in a subtle and low-key manner. 

As time passes without any stressful interactions, your cat’s comfort around you should eventually return. If the problem persists, consult your veterinarian to rule out underlying medical causes for your cat’s behavior changes and discuss possible treatment approaches.

Final Thoughts: Do Cats Hold Grudges

So, do cats hold grudges? No, they don’t. They are smart, affectionate animals that always need to protect themselves from real and perceived threats.

So next time you think your cat may be holding a grudge or showing signs of fear or stress, give them time to settle down. Take out the things they love most and leave them visible to your cat.

Reestablish that both you and your home are safe places. Before you know it, your cat will be back on your lap while you have to decide if you can hold in your pee just a little bit longer in order to show them love!