Cats vs. Dogs: Exploring Feline Intelligence and Canine IQ · The Wildest

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Cats vs. Dogs: Exploring Feline Intelligence and Canine IQ

A common (if not silly) question with a complicated answer.

by Savannah Admire
June 28, 2023
An angry kitty swatting at a barking puppy.
Melanie DeFazio / Stocksy

If you’re a dog parent, and you’ve invested time and energy in training your pup, you’ll likely scoff at the idea that any cat could be smarter than your dog. But if you’re a cat parent, you’re definitely in the opposite camp. After all, cats are independent and won’t roll over for a treat — doesn’t that make them the far more intelligent species? If you have both cats and dogs, keep your opinion to yourself (and maybe sleep with one eye open in case either of them figures out your opinion). 

The truth is that comparing the intelligence levels of dogs and cats is…complicated. Brian Hare, founder and director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center put it best in an interview with PBS NewsHour: “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.”

While there is no single test to determine whether dogs are smarter than cats (or vice versa), there are multiple ways that scientists and researchers measure intelligence in animal species. The Wildest explores the factors that can help determine intelligence in our favorite pets and (hopefully) finally put to rest the question: Are cats more intelligent than dogs? 

Are cats really smarter than dogs? 

Cats are generally considered smarter than dogs, just because of their more independent nature and ability to solve problems on their own. But dogs are known as more trainable, able to learn a wide variety of tricks, and even perform jobs like search and rescue. 

While there are an abundance of studies on dog intelligence and behavior, there are far fewer on cats and none comparing the two species. Behavioral studies usually ask animals to perform tasks or solve puzzles, which dogs are more than happy to do, but cats may be less willing to participate in. That said, research has been divided on the dog/cat intelligence question, with some studies suggesting dogs are more intelligent than cats because of their social nature, while others found that cats rank higher in abilities, such as  long-term memory.

“Cats display a lot of individual variation and have distinct personalities, which makes it hard for researchers to understand them,” Kristyn Vitale Shreve, cat cognition and behavior research fellow at Oregon State University told PBS

What does it mean to be smart? 

Comparing animal intelligence is challenging because intelligence is hard to define, and different species have different types of intelligence. For example, a bird may be fantastic at navigating large distances but unable to solve a basic puzzle. 

So, what does intelligence mean for dogs and cats? Can we compare cat IQ vs dog IQ? Not exactly. There’s cognitive intelligence, which includes problem-solving, memory, and emotional intelligence, but there is also practical intelligence, which refers to an animal’s ability to survive and thrive in the wild. In this regard, cats are better hunters than dogs, but dogs are more emotionally intelligent, having adapted over time to understand humans. 

Because there are so many different facets of intelligence, comparing two different species isn’t exactly fair. Both dogs and cats are intelligent in their own ways, based on centuries of evolution as well as the unique environments of individual animals. 

What factors determine intelligence in cats and dogs? 

The intelligence of cats and dogs can be measured in a variety of ways, from the size and function of their brains to their cognitive and emotional intelligence. We’ll dive into several of these factors, but keep in mind that the differences between dogs and cats are a result of their interactions with humans, selective breeding, and the environments that each species has experienced.  

Brain size

Researchers often measure intelligence by examining the cerebral cortex of the brain, which is the area responsible for many cognitive abilities, including memory and problem-solving. A dog’s brain is not only larger than a cat’s, but it also has a greater area devoted to the cerebral cortex. In canines, this part of the brain plays a major role in social intelligence and communication. 

While a cat’s brain is smaller, their cerebral cortex is associated with vision and movement, which can be tied back to their stealth and hunting skills. Cat brains also have a more highly developed hippocampus, the part of the brain that handles spatial memory and navigation. 

Neurologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel has spent over 15 years analyzing cognitive functions in the brains of both humans and animals, including comparing the cat brain vs. the dog brain. In one experiment, she counted up the neurons in the cortexes of a cat, a mixed-breed small dog, and a Golden Retriever. Neurons are the cells responsible for transmitting information in the brain, and per Dr. Herculano-Houzel, “The more [neurons] you find in the brain, the more cognitively capable the animal is.”

In her research, Dr. Herculano-Houzel found 429 million neurons in the mixed breed dog and 623 million neurons in the Golden Retriever, while cats had only 250 million. While these numbers can’t provide a definitive answer in the great cats vs. dogs intelligence debate, they do suggest that dogs have a higher cognitive capacity than cats.

Trainability

Dogs are known for their trainability, which is why they’ve been known as man’s best friend for centuries. Whether trained simply to sit, stay, and come, or to do more complex tasks as a working dog, canines tend to have the upper hand (paw?) when it comes to training. 

However, just because cats can be more challenging to train doesn’t mean that they can’t be trained at all. In fact, cats actually respond well to clicker training and have the ability to learn many of the same tricks as dogs. Some cat breeds are even known for acting more like dogs, both in their social nature and trainability. So, are cats smarter than dogs? The simple answer is that they’re just different with unique skills.

Problem-Solving Skills

Cats tend to show more problem-solving skills than many other species and have even been known to continue working on a puzzle after a dog has given up or asked for human assistance. Felines are even known to use tools to solve problems, such as opening doors or even manipulating levers to get food. 

While dogs also possess problem-solving abilities, cats tend to be quicker at working out solutions, which anyone who has found their cat in the kitchen cabinets can attest to and may use as proof cats are smarter than dogs. 

Social Intelligence

Dogs tend to be highly socially intelligent, understanding and communicating with other dogs and humans. Studies show that dogs can learn and respond to an average of 165 words and phrases, with some dogs learning as many as 250. Dogs have a pack mentality and develop strong bonds with their human families, which can be another sign of their social intelligence. In fact, most dogs have the language skills and intelligence of a human two-year-old

While cats are hardly known for their sociability, they are capable of understanding and responding to humans (they just may choose not to). Cats are smarter when it comes to learning from observation, which is known as social learning and is a sign of advanced intelligence. 

What is the evidence that claims cats are smarter than dogs? 

While there is no definite evidence to back up the claim that cats are smarter than dogs, the idea can mostly be traced back to general perceptions of the two species. Cats are often seen as independent, while dogs are considered more social. But is a cat smarter than a dog? 

Emotional Intelligence of Cats and Dogs

Dogs have been domesticated far longer than cats, which could explain their stronger bonds with humans and high level of emotional intelligence. While cats are capable of reading human emotion, dogs sense the moods of their human parents more easily. 

Can cats learn tricks and commands like dogs? 

Dogs may be known for their trainability, but cats are capable of learning tricks as well. It just may take a little more time and patience to teach your cat tasks that may come more quickly to a dog. 

How do cats and dogs differ in their cognitive abilities? 

Both cats and dogs can learn through observing other animals and humans, but they have different skill sets. Cats tend to be better at stealth and hunting, while dogs rank higher in social intelligence and understanding humans. You can even test your dog’s intelligence at home with fun games and puzzle challenges.  

Are there specific breeds known for their intelligence?

Border Collies are often considered the smartest dog breed, closely followed by Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers. Among cats, the Bengal, Abyssinian, and Siamese breeds are known for their high intelligence as well as their ability to learn and perform tricks. 

So, are dogs or cats smarter? There is no clear answer to the question of whether cats or dogs are smarter. Both species are intelligent in their own unique ways, thanks to centuries of evolution. The best way to determine which animal is smarter is to consider the specific criteria you are using to measure intelligence or, better yet, accept that there is no right answer and move on because, well, it doesn’t really matter. Regardless, your cat or dog deserves your love and attention, so maybe try some challenging toys and puzzles to stimulate their intellectual abilities. 

FAQ

Are cats really smarter than dogs?

Cats are known for their aloof personalities and mysterious natures, which often gives the impression that they’re more intelligent. But both cats and dogs have high levels of intelligence in different ways. For example, cats are often better problem-solvers, while dogs excel at social intelligence. 

What factors determine intelligence in dogs and cats? 

How smart are cats? While there is no definite way to measure intelligence in cats or dogs, some factors to consider are each species’ brain size, their ability to solve problems, their social intelligence, and how trainable they are.   

Can cats learn tricks and commands like dogs?

Contrary to popular belief, cats can be trained — it just takes a little more effort and patience. Start by setting up a reward system and make sure to choose a treat or reward that your cat really loves. Begin with small tricks, like sit, and take things slow. You may also want to try clicker training, which often works well with cats. 

Are dogs more trainable than cats?

Dogs tend to be easier to train than cats because they have a desire to perform well and make their human parents or trainers happy. So, are dogs smarter? The truth is that cats can be trained as well, by choosing the right rewards and committing to a training regimen.  

Do cats possess problem-solving skills similar to dogs? 

Cats actually tend to be stronger problem-solvers than dogs because of their independent nature. Many cats will continue working out a puzzle even when a dog has stopped. 

Are specific breeds known for their intelligence?

Border Collies, Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers have long been considered the top five smartest dog breeds. Some of the most intelligent cat breeds are the Bengal, Abyssinian, and Siamese.  

References

Savannah Admire

Savannah Admire is a writer, editor, and pet parent to two dogs and a cat. When she’s not writing, you can find her reading, playing Animal Crossing, or being an obnoxious nerd about her favorite movies and TV shows. She lives in Maryland, where she constantly debates whether or not to get a third dog.

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