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Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
April 2019

Here’s how to test a cat’s intelligence

Abigstock-Red-domestic-cat-isolated-on-w-86735084re domesticated felines smarter than dogs? This question has been debated for years.

Berit Brogaard of the University of Miami specializes in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy, and is author of a 2013 Psychology Today article, “How Smart Is Your Cat?” She writes that cats have a greater capacity than dogs for complex problem solving. Although cat brain sizes are only 0.9 percent of their body mass compared to 1.2 percent in dogs, cat brains have surface folding and a structure that is unlike dogs, but “90 percent similar” to human brains.

“The cerebral cortex of cats is greater and more complex compared to that of dogs,” she writes. “It is the part of the brain responsible for cognitive information processing. A cat’s cerebral cortex contains about twice as many neurons as that of dogs. Cats have 300 million neurons, whereas dogs have about 160 million. In fact, cats have more nerve cells in the visual areas of their brain, a part of cerebral cortex, than humans and most other mammals.”

She posits that counting cerebral cortex neurons may not be the best indicator, but that it’s more useful than going by brain size. The cerebral cortex not only is responsible for problem solving and forms of communication, but for interpreting sensory and emotion inputs, and for short- and long-term memory.

“Cats have longer-lasting memories than dogs, especially when they learn by doing, rather than seeing,” she writes. Ask yourself: Does your cat remember when and where dinner is served?

While dogs have a higher “social IQ” than cats (they exhibit more patience and are less impulsive and more willing to please humans), cats can solve harder cognitive problems. Breed intelligence rankings are usually determined by the dog’s trainability.

Cats’ social ability and other intelligence markers can be unscientifically tested by cat owners at home. Does the cat come when called? Does he enjoy human company? Does he follow people around like a dog? Is he motivated to learn a trick when rewarded with treats?

Showing displeasure to change is also considered a sign of high intelligence. Is the cat sensitive to new furniture in the house, the absence of people, or new routines?

The ability to be self-reliant is also a factor in determining animal intelligence. Cats rate fairly high here. Their survival skills make them less dependent on people.

UK veterinarian Pippa Elliott, who writes frequently about cats for medical and popular pet journals, suggests several other at-home, unscientific tests of cat intelligence:

• Place an unopened can of cat food by the cat’s food bowl. If the cat looks back and forth between you and the can, waiting for you to open it, the cat has a high level of intelligence.

• Watch a nature show with birds on TV with your cat. Intently watching the show is a sign of high intelligence.

• Hide a favorite cat toy behind an item in the house. Let the cat see you do this. If the cat looks behind the item for the toy, it is showing that it understands the toy is hidden and did not entirely disappear. That indicates high intelligence.

However, the March 2018 issue of Catnip, the newsletter of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, cites a study that contradicts the cats-are-smarter theory.

That study, published in December 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, finds that dogs have more brain power. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, an associate professor of psychology and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, developed the methodology used in the study for counting neurons in the cerebral cortexes of many animals, including cats and dogs.

Herculano-Houzel and her co-authors found that dogs have more than twice the number of neurons in their cerebral cortex than do cats -- 623 million in the golden retriever and 429 million in the small mix breed tested, compared to 250 million in the cat.

“Neurons are the basic information-processing units,” she told Catnip. “The more units you find in the brain, the more cognitively capable the animal is.”

Unless further studies support one theory or the other, the age-old question of who is smarter will continue to be debated. Some experts believe it’s unfair to compare intelligence of different animal species.

“Because dogs and cats have different skill sets,” writes Elliott, “they use their intelligence in different ways. Neither intelligence is necessarily superior or inferior to the other.”

She goes on to explain, “Dogs are social creatures and have become increasingly skilled at performing different social tasks in the human world (police K-9s, service dogs). However, intense domestication of dogs may have caused them to lose some survival skills along the way.”

Cats, on the other hand, she notes, have fewer social skills but are more independent, allowing them to survive on their own without relying on people for their well-being.

 

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