Are Cats Smarter than Dogs?

The rivalry between “cat people” and “dog people” is a tail as old as time, and most try to claim superiority with a single tactic, insisting one is smarter than the other. Asking if cats are smarter than dogs is not much different than asking if you are smarter than your sibling or best friend. Certainly you have an opinion on this, but does your best friend or little bro agree with your assessment? Did your teachers agree? Do your bosses agree? For as long as we’ve been attempting to measure intelligence in humans, we’ve struggled with its very definition and, lately, are beginning to reassess which kinds of intelligence even matter. Is it better to be quick at solving math problems or quick at resolving emotional situations? Is the strong test taker more intelligent than the better social navigator? And what has this got to do with cats and dogs?! Everything.


Let’s face it: There are more service dogs than service cats, there are more books on dog training than cat training, and more dogs than cats star in Hollywood films. But does this really tell us anything about cats or dogs? Maybe a little, but it tells us a lot more about humans. More on that later. First, let’s start with the simple facts.


Dogs have more cortical neurons.

This is the fact that every “dogs-are-smarter” supporter will begin with, so let’s tackle it. Cortical neurons are, loosely speaking, what our brains use for complex thought, like planning. While you have about 16 billion of them, domestic animals have far fewer, with dogs clocking in at 530 and cats at 250, according to a widely cited study published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy. Okay, so dogs have more than double the cortical neurons of cats and, if we stop here, pro-dog wins the debate. But we won’t stop here.


It’s not what you have, it’s how you use it.

All we can really determine from dogs’ impressive number of cortical neurons (compared to cats) is that they appear to have the ability to process more complex thoughts, but do they actually do it? A more recent study published in the journal Learning and Behavior says no. In comparing dogs to a variety of other animals, including cats, the study found that dogs demonstrate no learning advantages over other animals, and their physical cognition is largely equal. Even their much-touted sense of smell isn’t particularly better than the primary sense of other animals, and their spatial reasoning is . . . you guessed it . . . even. The only area where dogs exceeded the learning ability of other animals by a noticeable margin was in the detection of sweetness. We all love a good cupcake, but most of us would agree that being able to detect sugar isn’t exactly an indicator of superior intelligence.


Then why does there seem to be so much media representation of smart dogs?

Because there is. What you see in the media is a representation of what has been studied, and the data here is seriously lopsided. Research into pets’ cognitive abilities has never been a robust field and, until 2004, there had been exactly 0 studies on the social cognition of cats, while dogs had been studied more than two dozen times. On this basis alone, it had been impossible to provide any factual evidence of intelligence in cats . . . because no one attempted to measure it! Meanwhile, dogs’ abilities were measured and reported with increasing regularity, leaving the general public to draw one very incorrect conclusion: Dogs are smarter than cats.


Why weren’t cats studied?

Great question! This comes down to a few quirks about studies, and one quirk about cats. Studies are expensive, and the experiments within them need to be uniform from one subject to the next in order to draw conclusions as effectively as possible, which means participants generally need to be willing to follow procedure. Cats are notoriously uncooperative study subjects, less eager to visit laboratories and less willing to perform on command, especially in new and often frightening environments. This doesn’t mean cats can’t complete the tests and tasks, but it does mean that researchers have been less willing to risk money on studies that were likely to have few cooperative participants. For those few studies that have been attempted, cats were often given the exact same tests as dogs. Would you give a driving test to someone learning to swim? What’s needed here is not a change in cats, but a change in the way these studies are conducted. Until then, it will continue to remain difficult for cats to get the intellectual credit they deserve, and they do deserve it because . . .


Cats are capable of complex thought.

In the absence of data, most behaviorists (and the general public) have turned to anecdotal evidence to assess the intelligence of cats versus dogs. Because people are people, they’re most attuned to how animals interact with . . . people . . . when making these judgment calls. Ask any “dog person” why he thinks his dog is smarter than a cat, and he’ll point out that the dog follows commands, follows a finger point, or even follows his eye gaze. It turns out that cats will actually do all of these things, too (and so can pigs and other animals, with training), if they’re with someone they trust. While dogs will blindly follow the lead of almost anyone making commands or suggestions, cats develop more complex social bonds with humans and make assessments about whether or not to comply, often based on comfort level. Which animal appears to be making a more complex decision here? Which decision is smarter?


How do we get the world to see that cats are smart?

If you’re not a researcher with a fat purse, the easiest thing you can do is to start by breaking the stereotype of aloof cats, and this is very much within your control, in your own home. Some cats are inherently more social than others, but all cats take some level of cue from their servants (“owners”), and most actually defer to you quite a bit. The more you talk to your cat, the more your cat will seek to interact with you in return, and begin to initiate interaction. The more you goof around with your cat, the more your cat will see humans as playmates and co-decision makers. The more you create a stress-free and relaxed environment in your home, the more secure your cat will feel, freeing up her mind space for socialization rather than survival. You have the power to raise social cats who display their intelligence in front of others, so use it! And before you say you don’t have time to train a cat all day . . .


There are passive ways to raise comfortable cats

A comfy cat is a secure cat, and secure cats engage. Though the goal is to raise an active cat who engages, everyone needs a place to rest, and that place needs to feel both inviting and safe. Cat caves offer a sense of seclusion and security, but can easily be moved from room to room, allowing you to give some respite to a kitty without having to fully isolate from the family. If you’re concerned that your trainee is using a cat cave to hide rather than rest, consider a clever alternative like the Strato, from Mau, which offers cave-like benefits without the total seclusion of solid sides, building a sense of kitty security without fully disappearing. Cat caves are just the beginning of a world of cat furniture that can be utilized to develop mentally healthy kitties, so poke around the catalogs of thoughtful brands like Mau Pets to find the right fits for your home.

1 comment

I have two cat companions and zero dog companions. I think you can guess my answer – cats are smarter!

Michael Yearout November 24, 2022

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