How Smart is Your Cat?
By Jennifer Nelson
We don’t use cats for search and rescue, police work, or bomb sniffing. Most people might say cats are intellectually incapable of such complex undertakings, but could they possibly be as smart as dogs? The answer may surprise you.
Just because cats have a different skill set than dogs doesn’t mean they aren’t as intelligent—and maybe even more so.
Nancy Sayles of Woodland Hills, Calif., says she has a super smart cat. Blue, the cat, knows what time to get up, and he knows that when the coffee’s ready, that is when his pet parents will open up the patio door for him. But he doesn’t wait because he has to. He can take the wood security stick out of the sliding glass door and even push the door open enough to slide out on his own. Sayles says that Blue also comes running at common phrases like “let’s go feed the fish” and “come inside,” as though he understands perfectly. Is Blue an Einstein or just a typical cat whose owner is more attentive than most?
One thing we do know is that cats are not dumb by any stretch. The brain of a cat, though small, occupies about 0.9 percent of their body mass, compared to 1.2 percent for the average dog. In fact, a cat’s complex cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for information processing, contains about twice as many neurons as that of dogs. This is the area of the brain that interprets information, language, rational decision making, and complex problem solving.
Some, especially die-hard cat lovers, think cats are even more intelligent than dogs because they don’t find reward in frustrating situations like practicing tricks or other useless social activities dogs are eager to demonstrate. And just about everyone in animal research knows that intelligence or not, cats are no cake-walk to work with.
Few studies have been done to date on cat intelligence, but a 2009 study that sought to determine whether cats could identify different quantities of objects (in other words, count) found they weren’t as good at it as other animals, like fish or dogs, were. Another study found that cats can follow pointing gestures similarly to dogs and can follow simple puzzles to get food, but if the puzzle is unsolvable, dogs look to their owners for help while cats continue trying. Of course, in the end, aside from demonstrating cats’ indifference to participating in the studies themselves, none of the tests proved much about feline intelligence.
Marty Becker, dubbed “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent close to 20 years as ABC’s Good Morning America’s veterinary contributor. He says that what’s being ranked in dog breed intelligence is the interest the dog shows in interacting with humans and carrying out what we want of them. “The cat breeds who are anecdotally considered better at interacting—and therefore are considered smarter—are those lighter, more athletic breeds known for being more 'busybody' than other cats, primarily the so-called Oriental breeds such as Siamese, Burmese, and Bengal.”
So just how can you tell if your feline friends are smarter than the average dog? Here’s some things you can do at home.
(Warning: Before you try some of these home intelligence tests on your kitty, take a nod from researchers who can tell you that cats can be dismissive, uninterested, and will very likely refuse to participate in your bag of cat tests. That’s probably not a sign of intelligence or stupidity, that’s just who they are.)
How Can You Tell if Your Cat is Smart?
Is your cat social? Of course, dogs are known to be demonstrably sociable animals. Dogs want to interact with you. They greet you at the door, they want to sit next to you, and they crave the love and affection you offer. This should not be mistaken for intelligence.
“I have a cat that greets me at the door and follows me around, like a dog,” says Dr. Jeff Werber, an Emmy-award winning celebrity veterinarian who cares for celebrity pets like Lassie, as well as for the pets of Hollywood stars such as Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, and Britney Spears, among others. Werber says a cat’s social ability is oftentimes less interactive than a dog’s, but that doesn’t necessarily signal a sign of intelligence. “We own dogs,” says Werber. “Cats own us.”
1. Test your cat’s intelligence: How social is your kitty? Does he come when called? Does he greet you when you come home? Does he plop next to you on the sofa because he knows that’s how to get petted?
“I think it depends on how you want to define smarts. If it goes by survival, cats are hands down winners,” says Werber.
When you see a cat walking around on the street, do you stop and say, “Oh My Gosh, let me catch it and take it to the shelter, it must be lost.” Probably not. But many would agree that a dog needs help finding a safe place to be until his owners find him.
If you took a cat and a dog and put them outside to fend for themselves for ten days, the cat will likely come back fat and happy, says Werber. “The dog, on the other hand, if it does well, it’s not because he did it on his own, it’s because he endeared himself to some strangers.”
Does that mean dogs are dumb when it comes to surviving on their own? Not likely. It just signifies that cats have a more self-reliant nature, some street smarts, and a knack for looking after themselves.
2. Test your cat’s intelligence: Do you have reservations about leaving your cat for a night or a weekend with a fresh cat litter box and enough food and water for the time you’re gone? If not, you have a self-reliant survival-smart cat and he’s probably plenty intelligent.
Both cats and dogs may have a good memory. Werber has six cats that all get fed at the same time, yet they eat in different areas. Each cat knows exactly where he needs to line up for cat food every evening without fail. Just like Sayle’s cat Blue knows what time to get up in the morning, many cats are programmed by their schedule. In fact, cats are sensitive to schedule changes and breaks with patterns: feeding them at a different time, working a different shift, even something like wanting to sleep in on a weekend upsets them and usually won’t go over.
3. Test your cat’s intelligence: Does your kitty “remember” what time she gets dinner or a treat? Try putting a bite of delicious kibble under a small pillow or piece of paper on the floor while kitty watches you. See if she remembers you putting it there and seeks out the treat.
The right cat given the right reinforcement can be trained to do a variety of tricks, says Werber. Data shows that dogs do their best when they receive reinforcement with food treats and pats on the head. Cats seem to be motivated solely by cat treats. Apparently they don’t find a pat on the head or other physical reward quite as satisfying, but that doesn’t diminish their intelligence. Some say it may in fact be a sign of higher intelligence.
Many cats can perform a variety of tricks similar to dogs—sitting on command, lifting a paw, lying down. Again, the right cat with the right trainer can show extreme intelligence. A cat who can’t be bothered to learn simple commands is likely not showing a lack of intelligence, but indifference to learning a frustrating task where the treat isn’t motivation enough.
4. Test your cat’s intelligence: Try to teach kitty a “trick,” such as “sit” or “give your paw,” using small food treats as motivators. If he accomplishes the tasks, you have a smart cat. If he can’t be bothered, you have a typical cat.
Cats, even more than dogs, are adept at letting you know that something is upsetting them. Whether it’s a new brand of cat litter or the absence or presence of someone new in the home causing a change in routine, cats voice their opinions in a number of ways—from hissing to caterwauling their unhappiness. Dogs seem to generally overlook these issues, whether because they are less upset by changes in routine or because they are less able to express their displeasure.
5. Test your cat’s intelligence: How is your cat at showing you she’s upset? Does she take notice or does she not care about changes at home? Is she sensitive to everything from a new rug in front of the fireplace to a new location for the litter box? If she notices changes and shows displeasure, you may have an intelligent kitty.
"We don’t really know how to evaluate cat intelligence, even if we were to hook cats up to EEGs and measure their neurons firing," says Werber. So far, he says, they are going mostly on anecdotal evidence rather than anything scientific.
Meanwhile, it’s amusing to assess how “intelligent” our cats are. What does your kitty do that makes you think he’s smart?
This article was verified for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
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