How Smart Is Your Cat?

The structure of the feline brain is much like our own. But can we really measure feline intelligence?

Many people regard cats as being resourceful and self-reliant. After all, the species has survived thousands of years in radically different environments and living conditions. But how smart are our domestic cats? We humans tend to be very biased in assessing the intelligence of our cats (and dogs). That’s because we usually choose to judge them according to traits that we can relate to as human beings. When cats do something entertaining or display their independence, we generally think of them as intelligent. 


But there is actually far more evidence for feline intelligence than just our perception of it. According to researchers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, the physical structure of our brain and that of cats are very similar; they have the same lobes in the cerebral cortex (the “seat” of intelligence) as we do. Our brains function the same way, conveying data via identical neurotransmitters. 

Therefore, our thinking is similar to the extent that both humans and cats take in and process data from five senses and, from there, make decisions. Have you ever watched a cat look both ways before crossing a street or observe a cat standing in a doorway, tail twitching, trying to make up her mind about what to do next? When your cat is doing that, she is thinking and deciding, just as we do.

According to experts, cats demonstrate an adaptable behavioral ecology, which is a sign of intelligence beyond instinct or conditioning. In the wild, cats are asocial: Adults live mostly solitary lives except when mating. (Female domesticated cats and lions are the only cat species that raise their young in groups.) 

But you will see these same cats coming together and socializing around resources, such as food or water. And cats that normally live and hunt alone will learn to congregate and socialize at the fishing dock or a farm stocked aplenty with grain and mice. In other words, they learn the value of a social network.

Measuring Intelligence. Some people believe that the intelligence of creatures depends on how easily you can train them. Herein lies the proverbial controversy over the intelligence of dogs versus cats. Most people would agree that you can train a dog much more easily than a cat. But does that mean that a cat is less intelligent than a dog?

Experts say no. You can train a cat, but it will be more difficult. Cats are simply not wired to please others as much as dogs are. They will only do tricks if there is something in it for them — like a really good treat. 

Dogs have been selectively bred for centuries, whereas cats have been largely left to themselves. Therefore, humans have selected dogs that are usually eager to please us. Cats are definitely capable of being trained, and if you proceed with patience, it can be a great way to enhance your bond.

Learning By Watching Others. Cats learn through observation — more proof of their intelligence. In fact, kittens that aren’t raised with other cats usually don’t do the many common things that cats do. Studies have shown that cats that had never killed rats can become rat killers by simply watching another cat kill a rat. That’s why experts believe that kittens need to learn from their mothers what to hunt for food.

Cats also learn by observing their human companions — who often testify how their cats have learned to open room or cabinet doors, even managing to drop down from overhead shelves onto door knobs to turn and open them.

There is no doubt that cats are pretty smart when it comes to their memory, associative ability, behavioral adaptability and observation skills. As to whether cats are smarter than dogs — or dogs smarter than cats — it all comes down to this: Intelligence is in the eye of the beholder.