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How Smart Are Cats?
Cat BehaviorCat BreedsCat Facts

How Smart Are Cats?

Cats have a reputation for being aloof creatures who meow to their own tune. When it comes to cat intelligence, research is rather limited and still lags behind canine intelligence studies. However, there are animal cognition experts and scientists who are determined to find answers to the question, “How smart are cats?”

Learn more about how cat's brains work, breeds that are known for their intelligence, and what the research says about whether cats are smarter than dogs! 

How Cats’ Brains Work 

The brain of a cat is remarkably similar to that of a human. Comparing a human brain with a cat’s, Dr. Lorie Houston, a veterinarian for PetMD stated, “The brains of cats have a surface folding and structure that is very similar to that of the human brain, about 90 percent similar to be more exact. Morphologically, both cat brains and human brains have cerebral cortices with similar lobes.”

a cat wearing glasses reading a book on a couch
a cat wearing glasses reading a book on a couch

Dr. Lorie Houston further explains that what contributes to a cat’s intelligence is the way its brain is separated into different compartments to carry out specialized tasks. These areas are interconnected and share information at an expeditious rate. The communication that goes on between the different areas of the brain is what enables a cat to perceive, understand and respond to its surroundings. 

Scientific Facts That Prove Cats Are Smart!

While many researchers are perplexed as to how a cat's mind works, it has provided us with some evidence that proves that cats are clever. Whether we’re taking a look at the complexity of cats' brains, their social skills, or their ability to survive in the wild, these furry felines we call friends have a lot to offer when it comes to their minds. 

Brain Complexity  

A feline brain makes up just 0.9% of its weight in comparison with dogs whose brains make up 1.2% of its weight and human's 2%. A cat’s brain can seem quite small. However, a closer study of the cat's brain reveals that cats demonstrate abilities that can only be credited to their brain power. After investigating the number of neurons cats have in their brains, neurologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel noted that cats have about 250 million neurons in their cerebral cortexes. A cat’s cerebral cortex is much like a human cortex in that it's responsible for many of their higher-level processes and without it, they would be lacking in intelligence.   

Good Short-Term Memory

2006 study was carried out to test cats' short-term memory. Trainers taught these cats to find objects in various places and then gave them a specific amount of time to find those objects. The results of the study showed that cats could successfully locate the object within the time frame of 60 seconds. Another study took a deeper look into feline incidentally encoded memory. The conductors of the study stated that the cats were able to retrieve and utilize “‘what’ and ‘where’ information from an incidentally encoded memory from a single experience.” From these scientific studies, we learn that cats can remember their experiences and use that information to make decisions. 

Social Skills

Many assume that cats are smart due to their independent natures. Dogs are quite needy and rely on their owner for affirmation and love. On the other hand, cats know their worth and don’t need to be told that they’re good kitties. What does this tell us about a cat's intelligence?

a cat sitting on top of a wooden table next to a person
a cat sitting on top of a wooden table next to a person

Kristyn Vitale, an animal behavior educator, and researcher conducted a study where 55 cats were given the option of choosing between food, toys, and human interaction. More than 50% of the cats chose human interaction over toys and food. While the study did highlight that cats can make decisions which do shed some light on their intelligence, the results were not conclusive.

Interpreting Emotions

One study focused on emotion recognition in cats proves that cats can interpret human emotions. The study was aimed at “investigating cats’ spontaneous ability to match acoustic and visual signals for the recognition of both conspecific and human emotions.” The results of the study showed that cats were able to match human emotions with a visual representation of that emotion, especially if it was highly intense. This research assures us of a cat’s ability to understand how we as humans feel and to react accordingly.

Survival Skills

Dr. Jeff Werber, an Emmy-award-winning celebrity veterinarian, noted that if one wanted to define an animal’s smarts by their survival skills, cats would be “hands down winners”.

a cat that is sitting in a tree
a cat that is sitting in a tree

A feline's ability to survive in the wild on its own suggests that they have “street smarts”, a term awarded to intelligent and quick-thinking beings.

Trainability

A cat’s ability to focus on and learn commands from its owner certainly shows us that cats have a measure of intelligence. Dr. Miklósi concluded that cats have the ability to understand what fellow felines (including other kinds of animals) and humans are communicating to them.

One study conducted in 2009 highlighted how indifferent cats are to participating in studies. A misconception would be that this common behavior of indifference highlights a lack of smarts.

Are Some Cat Breeds Smarter Than Others?  

All cats are clever, but some breeds stand out amongst their fellow felines for being particularly intelligent. Examples of such breeds include:

Abyssinian – An athletic and affectionate cat that loves to get involved in different activities. They are excellent climbers, hunters, and jumpers who thrive in environments where they can explore, climb high spaces, or simply enjoy good mischievous play with their humans and fellow feline friends.

Balinese – As curious felines, Balinese cats need a lot of mental and social stimulation. They are known to enjoy a challenge, so interactive environments also allow for their brainier qualities to shine.

Burmese – These are social cats that typically require a lot of attention and affection. These cats are known to have kitten-like personalities into their senior years, and enjoy engaging their busy minds through play, such as with interactive toys and activities with their humans. 

Bengal – A Bengal cat's appearance is often compared to that of a leopard. One of they ways that these beautiful and active cats express their intelligence is through the use their paws. They are known for being able to open drawers and even turn off lights!

Havana Brown – These outgoing cats enjoy being taught tricks and are always up for a challenge. Havanas are known as affectionate and highly social cats who typically do very well in families.   

How To Tell If Your Cat Is Smart  

Though the breeds listed above may be known as highly interactive and intelligent, it's important to remember that even the most uninterested cat can still be an extremely smart one.

a woman walking a cat on a leash
a woman walking a cat on a leash

You may not have a cat who is easily leash-trained, so the categories of questions below can help you assess your kitty's intelligence in other ways:

Social Ability – Is your cat social? Does your kitty listen to you when it’s called? Does he come to you for cuddles or greet you after you’ve been gone for a while?

Survival Skills – How self-reliant is your kitty? Do you feel comfortable leaving your feline alone? If you left your cat at home overnight with everything he needs, do you feel they would be okay?

Memory – Does your cat remember when it’s dinner time? Do they know exactly which bowl to eat from if there’s one specific bowl assigned to them (and more than one cat is living in the house)?

Trainability – How well does your cat respond to commands when they’re tempted by a tasty treat? Do they ignore you or try to learn the trick? If your cat responds positively, then you know that they are exceptionally clever when it comes to training.

Showing Unhappiness – How sensitive is your cat to changes in the home? Does your cat express its unhappiness through meowing or a behavior change? 

Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs?

The answer to the above question is not as simple as answering with a “yes” or “no”. As of today, there is not enough information available to be able to answer the question honestly.

a cat and a dog laying on a rug next to an open book
a cat and a dog laying on a rug next to an open book

We know that a dog's cerebral cortex contains 530 million neurons while cats possess 250 million. Studies show that dogs have strong social skills, thus qualifying them as socially intelligent. Does this evidence indicate that dogs are smarter than cats? Not quite. With so little information on feline social intelligence, there’s no substantial comparison to make. So, then, the answer to the question, “Are cats smarter than dogs”, remains inconclusive.

Conclusion 

We know that cats are highly intellectual. Just how smart they are, we don’t know yet. What research does reveal is that they are socially intelligent and very perceptive to their owner's emotions and needs. They’re also more likely to survive in the wild than dogs. Despite any signs they show of being clever creatures, cats continue to be independent yet loving animals. 

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