As the two most popular pets in the world, it’s impossible not to compare cats and dogs. We talk about which species is the better companion and which is the best cuddler, and there’s also the age-old debate of which animal is smarter.
While dog people will always refer to canine trainability, we can’t discount a cat’s independence and problem-solving.
Pet owners could debate the merits of each species all day, but thankfully, scientists have also entered the debate. Studies focused on the intelligence of cats versus dogs aren’t as widespread as we’d like, but they do give us some direction toward finally answering the question: are cats smarter than dogs?
Cat Brain vs Dog Brain
The ultimate answer to which domestic species is smarter isn’t as simple as it sounds. While human intelligence can be measured by an IQ test, there is no black-and-white way to evaluate an animal’s overall intelligence. At the same time, we can compare human intelligence to that of other animals, but animal-to-animal comparisons are more tricky.
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Brian Hare of Duke University explains it well by saying, “Asking which species is smarter is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver. Each tool is designed for a specific problem, so of course, it depends on the problem we are trying to solve.”
Both cats and dogs evolved differently based on what they needed to do to adapt and survive. With different physical capabilities and needs, each species endured specific trials and overcame those challenges with specific solutions. The cats and dogs of today are products of that problem-solving.
We can’t say one species is inherently smarter than the other without considering all aspects of intelligence and putting everything on an even playing field. So far, scientists haven’t found a perfect way to do that. Because intelligence is judged from a human perspective, it’s impossible to give cats and dogs a fair test.
With that said, there are studies that point to specific kinds of intelligence while giving a general idea of which animal comes out on top in terms of cognitive abilities.
Counting Neurons as a Measure of Intelligence
One way scientists have attempted to subjectively gauge animal intelligence is by comparing the number of neurons located in the cerebral cortex of the brain. This section of the brain is known to be responsible for many of the higher cognitive processes including memory, thoughts, and decision making. Researchers believe that by estimating the total number of neurons, they can rank species based on cognitive abilities. Neurologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel explained, “Neurons are the basic information processing units. The more units you find in the brain, the more cognitively capable the animal is.”
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To count neurons, Herculano-Houzel performed an experiment by counting the number of suspended neuron cells within the liquified brain matter of different species. The animals used in the experiment all died from natural causes, and their bodies were donated to science. Herculano-Houzel looked at the brain matter of several species. Her experiment included one cat, one Golden Retriever, and one small mixed-breed dog.
The results found that out of the domestic pets, the Golden Retriever had the most neurons with 623 million. The small breed dog was next, and the cat’s brain came in third with 250 million neurons.
These numbers suggest dogs have better cognitive skills, but there are other factors to consider. First, it is unclear how brain size affects intelligence.
Past studies suggest that the bigger the brain, the more neurons are present, and therefore, the smarter the animal. This concept proved to be true in a 2014 study that looked at an animal’s ability for self control. Cats weren’t included in that experiment, but the conclusions suggest that brain size is relative to self-control and therefore cognitive function.
Herculano-Houzel’s experiment, however, shows large animals with larger brains, like the brown bear, have fewer neurons than smaller animals. Researchers say more studies are needed to determine exactly how or if brain size factors into intelligence.
Another issue to consider is that the experiment only counts neurons, it doesn’t prove that all the neurons are being used. A Golden Retriever, for example, has about 623 neurons at their disposal, but it doesn’t tell us whether or not they’re reaching their full potential.
Problem Solving and Finding Food
While the number of neurons for each species potentially gives dogs the advantage, other studies suggest cats have the upper hand. A 2006 study out of Hungary, for example, found that cats are more likely to succeed at difficult food puzzles.
Dogs and cats had to manipulate the puzzles using their paws and noses in order to release food. Both species were capable of success, but the study found that dogs were more likely to give up and expect human assistance. Cats, on the other hand, preferred to work through the problem themselves.
This experiment also relates to cats and dogs in the wild. Finding food is arguably the most essential skill for an animal to have. Without it, dogs and cats would have died out before they had the chance to become domesticated. In terms of hunting-related intelligence, cats are the clear winners.
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They are skilled predators and are perfectly capable of finding their own food (when they’re forced to). Dogs, on the other hand, can be hunters, but they don’t possess the same stealth, flexibility, and natural instinct as cats.
This obviously varies depending on the dog’s breed, but in general, cats are better at hunting than the average dog. So if you’re judging animal intelligence by which species would survive on its own, cats would win.
The Social Factor
Cats could find their own dinner with no human help, but some scientists suggest sociability is an indicator of intelligence. Social intelligence includes how a domestic animal adapts to life with humans. Dogs are generally considered to be more social, but you can’t discount cats in this category.
Many domestic cats are just as social as dogs, and they rely on human interactions for both mental and physical health. It’s even unfair to say that dogs are easier to train than cats. With the right strategy, cats are capable of learning behaviors and tricks.
In the grand scheme of domesticity, dogs have lived alongside humans for a lot longer than cats. Should those centuries be considered when determining social intelligence? Regardless, there’s also a difference in how pet owners treat cats versus dogs.
While puppies attend obedience school and go to the park for playdates, most people don’t provide their cats with those same social opportunities.
Overall, there are several categories to consider when gauging the intelligence of cats versus dogs. While one species excels in one area, they falter in the next. We can’t say for certain that cats are smarter than dogs. We can say, however, that cats have an unmatched intelligence that is impressive in its own way.