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How Smart Are Cats? Here’s What Science Says

We know our cats are smart. Sometimes they do dumb things, but don’t we all? They know when their dinnertime is even before we do, and they can tell when change is in the air. So, while we can see that our cats are intelligent little creatures, exactly how smart are they?

We’re going to have a look at exactly how clever our cats are, and should we even compare their intelligence to dogs? We’ll also have a look at some of the studies on cats out there and what some of the most intelligent cat breeds are.

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Lack of Feline Studies

According to David Grimm, the online news editor of Science Magazine and expert on the science of cats and dogs, as of 2004, dozens of labs worldwide published a multitude of papers on canine intelligence. But there were no studies on cats at that time.

Since then, there have been a few studies conducted on cats, but scientific research on our feline friends is lacking. Many researchers who have studied cats found that their independent nature was what made the research challenging.

Dr. Ádám Miklósi is a Hungarian ethologist who has performed studies on canine intelligence and wrote a paper in 2005 on how dogs and cats communicate with humans. He had difficulty working with cats, who didn’t always cooperate while in his lab and, not surprisingly, didn’t follow instructions or participate the way the dogs did.

So, is the lack of research due to the behavior and temperament of the average cat? Anyone who has been owned by a cat knows that cats generally don’t cooperate on the best of days. This is why we love them.

maine coon cat lying on table playing with wooden roller toy
Image Credit: Nils Jacobi, Shutterstock


Dogs vs Cats

So, we really don’t want to get into this age-old debate. It’s really like comparing apples and oranges. But we’ll have a quick peek anyway.

Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel counted the neurons in a dog and cat brain and found that dogs have around 530 million neurons and cats have about 250 million. Her study surmises that this proves dogs are essentially smarter than cats. But is this truly the case? Just as an aside, while Herculano-Houzel stated that she conducted the study without bias, she has admitted that she’s a dog person.

According to Psychology Today, cats actually have better long-term memory than dogs, particularly when they learn through action rather than through observation. But dogs beat cats when it comes to social tasks.

Kristyn Vitale is a researcher whose focus is on cat behavior and social cognition. She believes that we shouldn’t be comparing intelligence between animal species. Each species is intelligent in different ways. For example, cats are much better hunters than dogs, but dogs can be trained to be guides or police dogs much more effectively than cats. Cats are probably smart enough but have a mind of their own. Consider the quote, “Dogs will come when called. Cats will take a message and get back to you.”

In fact, cats can fend for themselves—grooming and hunting down their own food. That combined with their curious yet cautious nature is confirmation of their intelligence.

Cat and dog together on sofa indoors
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock


Cats Are More Social Than You Think

Vitale conducted a study that was designed to see if cats would prefer food, toys, or interaction with a person. They used 55 cats for the study and even included cats from animal shelters, which were all given a choice between the options. At least half of the cats, including some of the shelter cats, preferred human interaction with food as a close second.

Every cat is unique. One cat will prefer a warm lap and strokes, another wants a treat, and yet another would enjoy chasing a feather toy. It was suggested that one of the best ways to conduct these studies with a challenging cat is by employing one of these methods. The researchers just need to take the time to figure out what their subjects will best respond to.

cat playing with human
Image Credit: Pixabay

The Challenging Cat

We all know how finicky and mysterious our cats are. They have less patience and are far more impulsive and instinctive than dogs. Generally speaking, most dogs will do anything for their favorite people, particularly for praise and a treat. But cats, while they have the ability to be trained to do tricks, will only follow through if they feel like it—no matter how much they love their people.

In fact, Smithsonian Magazine wrote about a study that found that cats actually do recognize the voice of their owner(s) but choose not to respond to it. The conclusion was that because cats have not been trained to obey the orders of people the way dogs have, their level of independence is much higher.

So, while cats might not perform as well in lab tests as dogs, according to Miklósi, it’s likely due to being in a stressful environment with people they don’t know. Additionally, some cats actually do pass the tests, so Miklósi believes that cats can perform quite comparably to dogs if they are calm and very well-socialized.

A colleague of Miklósi’s, ethologist Péter Pongrácz, led a study that involved 99 cats but was only able to get data for 41 because the cats were behaving like, well, cats.


The Smartest Cat Breeds

Apparently, many of the Oriental breeds seem to top the smart charts. Part of what makes these breeds intelligent is their energetic and naughty natures, as it makes these cats that much more curious, and they enjoy a challenge.

In no particular order, here are 5 intelligent cat breeds:

  • Bengal: These cats resemble miniature jaguars and are highly energetic and need mental challenges to keep them entertained.
  • Savannah: Another cat that resembles (and is actually bred from African servals) wild cats. They are large and can get bored quite easily unless exercised and given something to do.
  • Siamese: These cats need no introduction as they are recognized as one of the most popular breeds. Talkative, inquisitive, and affectionate, the Siamese are highly intelligent.
  • Balinese: Considering the Balinese are related to the Siamese, it shouldn’t be a surprise that they are on this list. They are also quite chatty and can become naughty if not engaged enough.
  • Burmese: When the Burmese are bored, expect mischief. They are quite playful and trainable cats and enjoy spending time with their people and even other animals.

All cats are smart, not just the breeds on this list. Some just show it a little more often.

Portrait of a balinese cat
Image Credit: A__B, Shutterstock

So, How Smart Are Cats?

The jury is still mostly out as far as science is concerned. We all know cats are intelligent, but studying their intelligence is full of challenges. As cat owners, we have no doubt that our cats are smart, but studying a cat in a lab isn’t giving science the answers they are looking for.

According to Vitale, when researchers encounter difficulties while measuring the behavior of cats, the problem is not the cats, but it lies in the methods being used. So, the short answer is, cats are smart but remain a mystery to science.

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What do we know about our cats? They can employ impressive decision-making skills, they are impatient, and they’re not impressed if you’re boring.

Sometimes we might think our cats are being a little obtuse or perhaps jerks. Why does she keep knocking the same saltshaker off the kitchen counter or scratching your expensive couch when you’ve scolded her every time? Consider the fact that she gains your attention—every time.

Cats are probably even smarter than we think, so while science tries to figure them out, we should concentrate on our amazing relationship with our amazing cats.

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Featured Image Credit: Andriy Blokhin, Shutterstock