Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our September/October 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.
It’s an eternal question: Which species of domestic animal — cat or dog — has superior intelligence? The standard answer is some version of this: “Dogs do what they’re told, but cats do what they want; so, cats are smarter.” Another routine reply: “We train dogs; cats train us.”
In truth, many dogs don’t do what they’re told. And cats are by nature somewhat more independent than dogs, but does that make them smarter?
Dogs are equally adept at training people as cats. Take a precious puppy who’s taught to ring a bell to ask to go out to do his business, who then quickly learns to ring the bell just to go outside for fun — even if it’s 4 a.m. it takes weeks for the “smart” human to catch on.
Definitions of intelligence vary. Merriam-Webster describes it as the ability to learn, understand or to deal with new or trying situations; the skilled use of reason; the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria.
Not long ago, definitions of animal intelligence discounted use of reason, ability to manipulate the environment, or emotion as playing a role.
According to Charles Darwin, “Intelligence is based on how efficient a species became at doing the things they need to survive.”
One might argue that, by this definition, all species that stay healthy, remain numerous, and avoid extinction are equally intelligent.
Perhaps the best definition might be what my friend, certified cat behavior consultant and author Beth Adelman, has said: “Dogs are better at doing dog things (running a long distance to follow a scent), and cats are better at doing cat things (pouncing on an unsuspecting mouse).”
Although I like their answers, I think both Darwin and Adelman are sidestepping the answer.
A definition of cat intelligence from 1940 in the Journal of Comparative Neurology states that cats are self-centered beings with no empathy for others. They can learn only with negative stimuli and have far more limited capacity to learn compared with dogs.
Today, we know that cat brains account for about 0.9 percent of their body mass. The average dog brain is about 1.2 percent. While some scientists argue that brain size matters, most say it only offers a clue regarding intelligence.
It turns out that brain organization matters most. A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2013 suggested that massive increases in the brain’s prefrontal cortex played a critical role in ape evolution.
Over evolutionary time, several key brain regions increased in size relative to other regions. Great apes (especially humans) saw a rise in white matter in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain most associated with intelligence and responsible
for information processing, planning, introspection, and more. Cats have 300 million neurons compared with dogs’ 160 million neurons to fire signals from the prefrontal cortex.
When it comes to learning, most tests demonstrate that cats are about equal to dogs. The big difference is that if a dog is stumped, he’ll likely look to his humans for guidance or even to do the job for him, whereas cats will keep trying independently. And at a point, sooner than most dogs, cats will quit trying.
This doesn’t prove that dogs are more clever, just that they have the advantage of evolving with humans and being domesticated thousands of years earlier than cats. It could also be that cats are less patient.
Cats hunt for themselves. It’s how they were first domesticated, to keep vermin away from stored grain. Their hunting just happens to benefit us.
Some experts contend that social animals are smarter, as they need to communicate with one another, and this is correlated to intelligence. In recent years experts reconsidered cats as a social animal; they were always thought of as independent and, therefore, solitary and less intelligent based on lifestyle. However, cats outside — given their own choices — nearly always live in colonies.
Unlike their distant wild cousins, domestic animals don’t hunt cooperatively. It’s a strike against their brains, some say, as it takes a more developed brain to organize a hunt. Others argue that to hunt alone requires more planning (remember that’s a part of thought that occurs in the important prefrontal cortex), and the combined intelligence of a team doesn’t exist — it’s up to one cat to get it done.
Are dogs selfless and cats selfish? When asked this question, John Bradshaw, author of Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, laughed and answered, “Dogs attend to us all the time. Dogs can’t be easily trained to be independent. Dogs typically choose to focus on the person and not the task. Cats are about the task — and arguably that requires more intelligence.”
Brian Hare, founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and coauthor of The Genius of Dogs, said, “Cognition is recognition that there are different types of intelligence. And that is as true for dogs as it is for cats as it is for people. You can be amazing at math and horrible at English. The individual differences are significant.” Though he conceded that cats are wired differently than dogs.
What’s important isn’t how smart your cat is. After all, you don’t need him to do your taxes. What matters is the relationship and the bond we share. But let’s face it: Cats are smarter than many give them credit for.
About the author: Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant. He is a national newspaper columnist (Tribune Content Agency); heard on WGN Radio, Chicago; host of the nationally syndicated Steve Dale’s Pet World and author of the e-book Good Cat, among others. He’s a founder of the CATalyst Council, and serves on the boards of the Winn Feline Foundation and Tree House Humane Society, Chicago. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.