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Are cats or dogs smarter?

Which are smarter, cats or dogs? We asked a scientist

It’s a debate we can never seem to settle: Are cats smarter? Or are dogs? Dogs learn and respond to commands; cats usually don’t. But cats are cunning hunters with a boundless curiosity.

To settle this debate, PBS NewsHour posed the question to three scientists — a neuroscientist, a dog cognition expert and a cat behavior and cognition researcher. When one of these scientists counted the brain cells in these animals, there was a clear winner. Still, the latest behavioral research on animal intelligence challenges all our old-school notions on what it means to be smart.

Dogs have more nerve than cats

Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel studies animal intelligence by digging deep into gray matter. She liquifies animal brains to count their neurons. And what she’s found is that dogs have twice as many neurons as cats.

Neurons process and send information throughout the central nervous system. Herculano-Houzel’s team tallied the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex — the wrinkly outer layer of the brain — of various species. The brains belonged to eight carnivorous mammals: cats and dogs, along with ferrets, mongooses, raccoons, hyenas, lions and brown bears. The study was published in late 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy.

These were brains of already dead animals donated by a zoo, a forest preserve, a wildlife rehab facility and several pet owners.

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The technique, developed by Herculano-Houzel and originally used to reveal the number of neurons existing in the human brain, dissolves the brain and liquefies each neuron. Once mushed to an “unfiltered apple-juice” consistency, only free-floating nuclei from neurons remain in the “brain soup,” which a researcher can then count.

This method helped the team discover that dogs possess about 530 million neurons in the cortex, while cats have about 250 million. For perspective, the human cortex contains 16 billion neurons. Herculano-Houzel said it’s possible even small dogs, like chihuahuas or corgis, have more neurons than cats.

“Then the logical implication is that, yes, dogs are much more capable than cats,” Herculano-Houzel said.

Herculano-Houzel disclosed that she kept her biases out of the research, but said her dog, Mielina, is a great example of why dogs are smarter than cats. Photo by Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Herculano-Houzel disclosed that she kept her biases out of the research, but said her dog, Mielina, is a great example of why dogs are smarter than cats. Photo by Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Beyond dogs and cats, the team found a few surprises among the other animals. For example, the largest animals in the bunch—the hyena, lion and brown bear—had fewer neurons than the smaller ones. Neuroscientists long suggested that brain size might indicate more “braininess.” Read: the bigger the brain, the smarter the animal. But Herculano-Houzel’s team found that bears had the same number of neurons in their cortex as cats.

Another surprise in their research came from raccoons, those clever masked bandits. The raccoon brain is the size of a cat brain, but it holds as many neurons as a dog’s. The ratio of the raccoon’s brain size to its number of neurons resembles that of some primate brains.

“The very large number of neurons that we found in the raccoon cortex fits very nicely with the lore about raccoons,” Herculano-Houzel said. “It matches with how incredibly ingenious these little creatures are and how good at problem solving they are when it comes to finding food.”

Herculano-Houzel’s team also looked at neuron numbers in herbivores collected by other groups because they suspected grazing required less energy and brain power, thus fewer neurons. But they found herbivores packed as many neurons as their carnivore counterparts. The same balance applied when they compared domesticated versus wild animals.

All this suggests that brain size doesn’t matter. Evolution and breeding didn’t favor a species or body size when it came to neuron count. Intelligence comes in any sized package, Herculano-Houzel said.

Spectrums of intelligence

Brian Hare, the founder and director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, is cautious when pitting species against each other in the intelligence debate. Hare said many scientists avoid the term because intelligence is typically studied from a human-centric perspective.

“Asking which species is smarter is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver.”

“Asking which species is smarter is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver,” Hare, who did not contribute to Herculano-Houzel’s study, said via email. “Each tool is designed for a specific problem, so of course it depends on the problem we are trying to solve.”

Each species has been shaped by evolution to solve the problems most critical to its survival and reproduction, he continued. Seeing a dolphin sitting in a tree looks as silly as a chimpanzee fishing in the sea. But research shows that both dolphins and chimps are geniuses in their natural habitats.

So how should scientists go about studying animal cognition without a hierarchy of intelligence?

“A lot of what we already know about intelligence in other species falls on a gradient or a spectrum,” said Kristyn Vitale Shreve, a cat cognition and behavior research fellow at Oregon State University.

Consider hunting abilities, for example. Cats sit on the skilled end of the spectrum, while dogs sit in the middle and humans near the low end. But if we test the three on math, humans shift toward the intelligent side while dogs and cats move away.

In other words, we should avoid pitting different species against each other because they’re intelligent in different ways. But Vitale Shreve said we need comparative studies to see how overall behaviors relate to the physiology of the brain–particularly with what we now know about the neuron quantities in different brains.

Regardless of how many neurons dogs and cats have, they're still intelligent creatures who love you and deserve your love too. Photo by Roger H. Goun/via Flickr

Regardless of how many neurons dogs and cats have, they’re still intelligent creatures who love you and deserve your love too. Photo by Roger H. Goun/via Flickr

Vitale Shreve and Herculano-Houzel both said that it’s difficult to study intelligence using behavioral studies, which typically involve on animals performing tasks or solving puzzles. Also, few studies have directly compared dog and cat cognition, and in fact, only a handful of researchers study cats at all. Vitale Shreve said until scientists find the right methods to investigate dogs and cats together, it’s really not fair to make comparisons.

“There’s this perception of cats being untrainable or maybe hard to work with,” Vitale Shreve said. “Cats display a lot of individual variation and have distinct personalities, which make it hard for researchers to understand them.”

In summary, intelligence is a nuanced and complicated thing. But Herculano-Houzel has a message she’d like to deliver to all pet owners:

“Please love your cats and dogs alike as much as you want,” she said. “Regardless of how many neurons they have.”

Left: The perennial debate continues: Which are smarter, cats or dogs? The NewsHour decided to ask a scientist.

Go Deeper

Rashmi Shivni is science and social media news assistant for PBS NewsHour.

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How Smart are Cats?

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Cat sleeping

Cats certainly seem intelligent. Our cats always know exactly what time their breakfast should be and that the sight of the cat carrier means a dreaded trip to the vets. They seem to be able to anticipate our every move and know what we’re thinking, but we never feel like we know what’s going on in their brains. This is largely due to cats being mysterious creatures and the fact that they have eluded scientists because of their reluctance to participate in studies. So, the question still remains: how intelligent are cats?

In this article we take a look at the current research surrounding cat intelligence as well as the age-old debate of if cats are smarter than dogs. Keep reading to learn which are the smartest cat breeds and learn all about the cat mail delivery service in the late 19th century.

How intelligent are cats?

It turns out that cats have a brain structure that’s similar to other intelligent animals, including humans. It may come as a surprise to learn that your little cat’s brain structure is about 90 percent similar to yours!

And according to Psychology Today, a cat’s cerebral cortex – where rational decision making and complex problem solving takes place – has around 300 million neurons. The cerebral cortex is involved in the planning of action, overall interpretation of language and is also responsible for storing both short- and long-term memory, which is why your cat tends to learn by doing rather than seeing. Not only that, but cats also possess more nerve cells in the visual areas of their brain than humans and most other mammals.

However, calculating how intelligent cats are depends on how you measure intelligence in the first place.

Which are the smartest cat breeds?

Bengal cat looking at the camera with a tilted head

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Most people claim that the top three smartest cat breeds are Abyssinians, Siamese and Bengals . But this is because cat intelligence is usually ranked on sociability and willingness to interact with owners.

Abyssinians, Siamese and Bengals are all incredibly social breeds that are happiest when they’re interacting and playing with their owners. They can even be taught to perform tricks!

But it’s not all about breed when considering how smart cats are, as a little tabby cat named Nora can actually play the piano! Apparently, she was never actually taught how to play the piano as a trick and instead picked it up by herself because her owner teaches piano at their home, so she learned through imitating them. She’s been playing the piano since she was a year old and was the only cat out of six in the home that decided to pick it up. How’s that for cat intelligence?

Are cats smarter than dogs?

The question of whether cats or dogs are smarter is a never-ending debate between cat and dog owners. Both sides seem to have valid reasons for thinking their furry friend is the smartest, but what does the science actually say on the matter?

According to research into animal intelligence, dogs are generally seen as the smarter of the two due to the fact that they’re much more trainable. Dogs have been domesticated for longer than cats and seem to be more sociable and willing to please humans, which is why they’ve been successful at various tasks such as guiding the blind, search and rescue and for police work.

Bengal cat sitting on owner's lap with dog resting head on owner's knee

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But that’s only one way to measure intelligence. Cats can be viewed as more intelligent due to their unwillingness to follow humans and participate in studies, as they have their own mind and refuse to participate in meaningless tasks simply to please their owners.

Additionally, where many may believe that the reason cats ignore them is because they can’t understand you, it’s actually due to the fact that cats don’t feel the need to acknowledge you as much as dogs do. As Literature Professor Mary Bly said, “Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you.”

Studies conducted on both cats and dogs give us further insight into which are smarter. According to one done in 2009, cats are not be as good at counting or identifying quantities of things as dogs or fish are. Yet in another study , it was discovered that cats are able to follow puzzles, but unlike dogs who will seek help from their owners, cats will simply keep trying until they get it. So, where dogs are definitely the more social of the two and are more likely to want to please their owners, cats are much more independent and prefer to do things for themselves.

Essentially, this means that a cat’s intelligence is hard to directly compare to that of a dog.

The cat express service

Many dog lovers think that a dog’s ability to help humans with tasks makes them smarter than cats. But while there aren’t guide cats or police cats, there have actually been mail delivery cats! According to a New York Times article, in the late 19th century the Belgian Society to the Elevation of the Domestic Cat briefly used cats to send messages back and forth from Belgian villages.

During the experiment, 37 cats were used and the messages were put in waterproof bags and attached around their necks. The quickest cat reached their destination in under 5 hours and all of the others made it back within 24 hours. The service was discontinued as pigeons were quicker, but we bet they didn’t look nearly as cute!

So how intelligent are cats? Pretty smart actually! They’re incredibly independent animals, they can understand numerous things (even though they may choose to ignore you) and they even have fantastic short- and long-term memories!

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.

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