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Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs? Here’s What Science Says

Written by: Christian Adams

Last Updated on March 6, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

cat with glasses

Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs? Here’s What Science Says


Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo


Dr. Paola Cuevas

MVZ (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Ever since humans split into cat people and dog people, the world has never been the same. We might go to war someday because we can’t agree on what animal is smarter!

Cat people point to feline independence and self-reliance as the most compelling signs that cats are more intelligent than dogs. Unlike dogs, cats can hunt for themselves without being bred for it or being trained to. What’s more, you do not need to potty-train a cat as you have to with a dog. A cat can also keep themselves clean, while a dog needs your help.

Conversely, dog people point to canines’ trainability as being the most telling sign of intelligence. Dogs can learn complex tasks, such as working as service dogs and cracking cases with the police, making them invaluable to us. Team Dog also posits that cats are not aloof; they are simply unable to learn complex tasks.

As you can imagine, neither group is willing to budge from their stance. Fortunately, we can rely on good old science to shed some light on this topic.

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Measuring Intelligence

cat looking at chess pieces
Image Credit: Rick Brown, Pixabay

For years, we have tried to determine different species’ intelligence with anatomical studies, such as comparing brain size or weight, measuring brain-size-to-body ratios, and even studying the complexity of the convolutions of the cerebral cortex. As science progresses, the nature of our research also changes.

A study published in the Frontiers Journal proposed a new way of measuring cognitive ability in animals: by counting the number of neurons in their cerebral cortex. Neurons are nervous cells in the nervous system. The neurons in the cerebral cortex are responsible for information processing in the brain. They gather information transferred by nerves from all over the body to be processed in the cerebral cortex. Different brain sections specialize in processing a specific type of information. The cerebral cortex acts as the coordinating unit to facilitate functions such as decision-making and problem-solving.

According to Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist involved in the aforementioned study, counting the number of neurons in an animal’s cerebral cortex is one of the most accurate tools to judge an animal’s capacity for complex thought, despite its difficulty.

So, which pet reigns supreme?

The study found that a dog has 530 million neurons in their cerebral cortex compared to a cat’s 250 million neurons. This means that dogs have twice as many neurons in their cerebral cortices as cats.

Does this finding imply that dogs are more intelligent than cats?

Dissecting the Study

cat lying on the books
Image Credit: grapaiva, Pixabay

If you are a cat person, chances are you are not happy with the turn of events. After all, dogs are larger than cats, meaning they should have larger brains and more neurons.

However, it is not that straightforward.

In addition to cats and dogs, the study also examined several other animals’ brains, which included an African lion, a brown bear, a striped hyena, a banded mongoose, a domestic ferret, and a banded raccoon.

The findings were nothing short of fascinating. For starters, the brown bear has almost the same neuron count as the cat despite its brain being about 10 times larger than that of the cat. This implies that there is no correlation between brain size and neuron count, with findings from the raccoon’s brain acting as evidence of this hypothesis.

A raccoon’s brain is roughly the same size as that of a cat. However, this masked bandit has about the same number of neurons as a dog. This means that an animal does not need to have a larger brain to have more neurons.

If that were the case, humans would need a whale-sized head to house all of the 16 billion neurons we have in our cerebral cortices.

Counter Arguments

angry cat close up
Image Credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians, Pixabay

According to Jessica Hekman, a veterinary geneticist at MIT, one should be cautious when interpreting results from this study. For starters, she said, there is no established link between intelligence and neuron number.

Brian Hare, director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, supports her sentiments, saying that the biggest risk when comparing intelligence between different species is analyzing it from a human-centric perspective. “Asking which animal is smarter is like asking if a screwdriver is a better tool than a hammer,” Brian quipped.

Therefore, the measure of intelligence should be determined by an animal’s ability to solve its niche problems. For example, while both dolphins and chimpanzees are considered geniuses in their habitats, either animal would look silly in the other’s habitat.

Similarly, cats and dogs excel in different areas. As such, comparing a cat’s intelligence with that of a dog is akin to comparing a screwdriver with a hammer.

If you aren’t entirely convinced and would like to expand your knowledge, you can read all about dogs here.

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While findings from the 2017 study suggest that dogs might be smarter than cats, the study has many flaws. It does not consider that cats and dogs are intelligent in different ways. For example, the average dog is not as adept at hunting as the average cat.

Similarly, cats might not be as good as dogs at learning tricks.

Moreover, the study did not consider that different breeds within a species differ considerably in cognitive ability. For example, a German Shepherd is a lot smarter than a Bulldog. Similarly, a Siamese is more quick-witted than a Persian. As such, it would be unreasonable to pit a German Shepherd against a Persian cat.

The bottom line is neither pet is smarter; it all depends on the individuals in question.

Featured Image Credit: Kashaeva Irina, Shutterstock

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