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In What Ways Are Cats Intelligent?

Cats have nearly twice as many neurons as dogs and a bigger and more complex cerebral cortex

It’s hard to come up with an interspecies IQ test. We live in a world where dogs are smarter than wolves in some ways but wolves are smarter than dogs in others. So much depends on what we want to measure. So let’s look at cats in relation to dogs because dogs have been studied so much more.

Dogs are often seen as smarter than cats because they can do more jobs for humans. But humans bred dogs for millennia to do those very jobs. Cats have also made themselves useful to humans by killing pest rodents. But we best help the cat kill rodents just by getting out of his way. Thus, to assess cat intelligence vs. dog intelligence, we need points of true comparison:

The cat brain vs. the dog brain. Cats have smaller brains for their size than dogs. The cat’s brain accounts for 0.9 percent of its body mass. The brain is about 1.2 percent of an average dog’s body mass and about 2 percent of the average human’s body mass. But that’s not the whole story:

Surface folding and brain structure matter more than brain size. Unlike the brains of dogs, the brains of cats have an amazing surface folding and a structure that is about 90 percent similar to ours. The cerebral cortex of cats is greater and more complex compared to that of dogs. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for cognitive information processing. A cat’s cerebral cortex contains about twice as many neurons as that of dogs. Cats have 300 million neurons, whereas dogs have about 160 million. In fact, cats have more nerve cells in the visual areas of their brain, a part of cerebral cortex, than humans and most other mammals.

Berit Brogaard, “How Smart Is Your Cat?” at Psychology Today (February 23, 2013)

These structural features are not a definitive argument about intelligence but they are better indicators than mere size. To whatever extent that intelligence depends on the sophistication of the nervous system, the cat has the means to be intelligent.

Research on dog intelligence does not transfer well to cats. Researchers have nonetheless found that cats generally learn by trial and error, observation, and imitation, assisted by a good long-term memory. Like dogs, cats can learn tasks like manipulating a latch or a switch or striking a small piano for a reward:

Cats engage in complex social behavior. According to folklore, cats are solitary creatures. But careful research has shown otherwise:

For a long time, it was believed that domestic cats did not have a social order. This is probably because cats do not display dominance in the same way that dogs—or people—do. From observation of free-roaming cat colonies since the mid-1990s, however, it is obvious that cats do have social structure. For instance, feral cats form a matriarchal society, with adult females forming lineages with related females. The largest lineages secure the best resources, and communal kitten care is common.

Leslie Darling, “Do Cats Have a Social Order in Eating?” at The Nest

Felines very much like to establish a personal territory, even if it is only an empty box. When other cats are present, a hierarchy usually develops—for example which cat gets to sit on which part of a sofa. Hierarchy allows cats to avoid fighting (thus avoiding injuries) but each cat must be intelligently aware of his situation to maintain his place.

● It is possible to teach cats complex routines, provided their need for safety and routine is respected and understood:

As the feline psyche has become better understood, animal handlers have had more success in training felines to perform in film and television, once the exclusive domain of the dog. Although they won’t perform for pats on the head and “good-cat” praise from their owners, some felines, if properly motivated, can be trained to do a wide variety of tricks, from opening doors and jumping through hoops to turning on lights. In what psychologists call operant conditioning, a cat will repeat a behavior for a food reward. This is best achieved if the desired behavior is fun for the cat, even more so if the person doing the training is its usual food provider.

DCL, “Feline Intelligence” at Animal Planet

● Are some breeds of cat smarter than others? Well, here we run into the equivalent of the perennial dog vs. wolf problem:

Most people claim that the top three smartest cat breeds are Abyssinians, Siamese and Bengals. But this is because cat intelligence is usually ranked on sociability and willingness to interact with owners. Abyssinians, Siamese and Bengals are all incredibly social breeds that are happiest when they’re interacting and playing with their owners.

How Smart are Cats?” at Purina UK

These cat breeds are considered smarter because they interact with humans more readily than others (= “dogs”). But that isn’t a measure of problem-solving intelligence (= “wolves”).

Cats can be difficult to live with:

Cats are more impulsive than dogs and have far less patience. They don’t easily tolerate frustrating situations for long periods of time. If an activity isn’t obviously rewarding to them, they would rather do something else. Dogs will do almost anything for a treat or a smile on their owner’s face. Dogs clearly have a higher social IQ than cats but cats can solve harder cognitive problems, if indeed they feel like it.

Berit Brogaard, “How Smart Is Your Cat?” at Psychology Today (February 23, 2013)

● But wait, what? Cats can solve harder problems than dogs? Read on:

Studies conducted on both cats and dogs give us further insight into which are smarter. According to one done in 2009, cats are not be as good at counting or identifying quantities of things as dogs or fish are. Yet in another study, it was discovered that cats are able to follow puzzles, but unlike dogs who will seek help from their owners, cats will simply keep trying until they get it. So, where dogs are definitely the more social of the two and are more likely to want to please their owners, cats are much more independent and prefer to do things for themselves.

How Smart are Cats?” at Purina UK

But then, as we saw when we looked at dog intelligence, humans have never bred or encouraged dogs to solve their own problems but rather to wait for human direction. A better comparison of feline vs. canine intelligence might be between cats and wolves, as both species have usually had to solve their own problems.

The UK Purina chow folks conclude, “Essentially, this means that a cat’s intelligence is hard to directly compare to that of a dog.” We could summarize the situation by saying that both life forms that became very important in the lives of many humans are quite intelligent but in ways that are hard to compare.


You may also enjoy these stories on cat intelligence and emotions:

Cats do bond with people. Both cats and kittens showed about the same level of attachment to caregivers as children and dogs did.

and

Cats do recognize their names. They recognize them as signals but not as abstractions.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

In What Ways Are Cats Intelligent?