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7 Cool Facts About Your Cat’s Brain

Cats learn by watching, and their brain structures are twice as complex as those of dogs.

 |  Oct 1st 2013  |   33 Contributions


One moment I’m amazed by my cats’ intelligence and sensitivity, and the next I’m watching them do some outrageously stupid thing and wondering, “Tell me again: Why do I think cats are so smart?” Then there was the time my cats learned how to open the refrigerator while I was away from home and dine on everything within, and I said, “Dammit, you cats are too smart for your own good!”

I’ve been geeking out about the brain for most of my life, and here are some good reasons for you to geek out about the awesomeness of this essential part of feline anatomy, your cat’s brain.

The feline brain. Image courtesy of the Comparative Mammalian Brain Collections of the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State University and National Museum of Health and Medicine

1. Cat brains are comparatively smaller than ours

In terms of the ratio of brain mass to body mass, a cat’s brain takes up 0.9 percent of total body mass. Humans’ brains occupy about 2 percent of total body mass, and dogs’ brains occupy about 1.2 percent. But when it comes to intelligence, size matters a whole lot less than other factors.

2. Structurally, cats’ brains are more complex than dogs’

The cerebral cortex is the area of the brain responsible for thinking and rational decision-making. Cats’ cerebral cortexes are much more complex than those of dogs, with almost 300 million nerve cells compared to about 160 million in the dog.

3. Cats have better short-term memory than dogs

In an experiment in which cats and dogs were tested to find out how well they could remember where food had been hidden, cats’ short-term memory lasted about 16 hours, whereas dogs’ only lasted about five minutes.

4. Researchers don't know which species has better long-term memory

Although cats don’t store a lot of information in long-term memory, the people and places cats choose to bank in long-term storage can stay put for many years. Since the cerebral cortex is responsible for storing long-term memory, it could be argued that a cat’s more complex cerebral cortex may lead to better long-term memory.

5. Cats learn by observation

If your cat watches you open the cabinet enough times, he will, like my refrigerator-opening feline housemates, figure out how to do it by himself. Kittens learn by watching their mothers hunt, eat, groom, and so on, and then repeating the behavior themselves until they get it right.

Cat playing chess by Shutterstock

6. Cats’ brain function can decline as they age

Elderkitties can develop a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome is caused by deterioration of the brain and can lead to symptoms such as disorientation, depression, inappropriate elimination and antisocial behavior. But just as with humans, not all cats develop this disease.

7. A cat is a lot smarter than an iPad

You may think your new tablet is awesome: so much processing power, so much storage space, so much speed. But don’t gloat too much, because your cat’s brain can smoke your iPad. A typical iPad has 60 gigabytes of data storage space, but your cat’s brain has about 91,000 gigabytes. In terms of processing speed, your iPad does about 170 million operations per second. Your cat’s brain, on the other hand, does 6.1 trillion operations per second. Unfortunately, your cat doesn't have wi-fi and 4G data access.

Ahchan and iPad, (CC-BY) by Hajime Nakano

Is there anything else you’d like to know about the feline brain? Ask me -- I may answer your question in a future column!

About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer, and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their cat advice column, Paws and Effect, since 2003. JaneA dreams of making a great living out of her love for cats.

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