By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 10 April 2011)
Are dogs smarter than cats, or are cats more intelligent than dogs? Kate Douglas of New Scientist details the results of recent studies designed to measure cat and dog intelligence. Some of the highlights (along with some additional relevant studies) are as follows.
Information Processing Capacity
Dogs do have bigger brains than cats (Schultz & Dunbar, 2010), but brain size is not a good indicator of intelligence (Purves et al., 2001), which is evident in the fact that Neanderthals actually had larger brains than modern humans (Braun, 2008). However, the number of neurons in the cortex is correlated with intelligence. On this measure, cats have the advantage over dogs, with 300 million neurons in a cat’s cortex compared to 160 million in a dog’s. This suggests that cats have more information processing capacity (Roth & Dicke, 2005), but although processing capacity is important, it’s not the only factor influencing intelligence.
Smart dogs can show an impressive level of understanding, with a capacity to follow pointing gestures made by humans and use their own gazes to bring objects or situations to the attention of their owners (Douglas, 2009). Although evidence suggests that cats are cognitively similar to dogs (for example, they are equally capable of using human pointing gestures as a cue to locate food), because they are usually neither motivated nor compliant when it comes to participating in research, it’s difficult to gauge their level of understanding (Miklósi et al., 2005).
Problem Solving Ability
Dogs have been subjected to far more research than cats, and cats don’t make good research subjects given their lack of motivation to please, so not much is known about their problem-solving abilities. However, the problem-solving abilities of dogs may also be difficult to determine because they tend to rely on their owners to take a leadership role. Canines often look to their owners to solve logistical problems rather than taking the initiative, which may cause them to perform poorly on problem-solving tasks unless their owners encourage them (Douglas, 2009).
Research has shown that a subordinate dog will usually perform better after witnessing another dog engaging in the desired problem-solving behaviour, and that both subordinate and dominant dogs do better after watching a human solve the problem. This illustrates the importance of the dominance hierarchy in canine learning and performance (Pongrácz et al., 2007).
Given that cats don’t usually meow to other cats and adult wolves rarely bark, it’s likely that companion animal vocalizations arose due to a desire to communicate with humans, and thus may be a reflection of social intelligence. Canines have more vocal flexibility when it comes to pitch, frequency, range, length, tonality, and other factors, so they are better able to communicate their feelings and intentions (Douglas, 2005). But studies have shown that cat vocalizations have some interesting and unusual features.
New evidence suggests that cats are capable of purring with a frequency that has a subliminal effect similar to that of a human baby’s cry. This purr, known as the “solicitation purr,” is slightly different from the regular purr and is used to ask for food (McComb et al., 2009). There is also evidence that purring provides pain relief and speeds the healing process.
Both cats and dogs have far better senses of hearing and smell than humans, but a cat can hear sounds ranging from 45-64,000 hertz, whereas a dog can only hear within a range of 67-45,000. Also, the average cat has more smell receptors than the average dog (some dog breeds, such as the bloodhound, are the exceptions to this rule). In addition, cats have an edge over dogs when it comes to night vision, though dogs can see better in low light than humans (Douglas, 2005). The well-developed senses of cats may explain why they often appear to see, hear, or smell things that people (and even dogs) can’t perceive.
Intelligence Varies Among Individual Animals
It’s difficult to determine how intelligent cats and dogs are because in natural settings, they apply their intelligence to problems that are important to cats and dogs, rather than those of interest to humans. In addition, people who have spent time with many cats or dogs will have noticed that some are more intelligent than others. Each species has its geniuses, as well as its duller members. The smartest dog is probably far more intelligent than the dullest cat, and vice versa, because individual animals vary widely based on genetics, experience, and other factors.
Given the research findings, it’s unlikely that either dogs or cats are smarter overall; rather, evidence suggests that each species has particular strengths when it comes to the various factors that make up intelligence.
Update: Since this article was written, a study conducted by Oxford Researchers concluded that dogs are smarter than cats due to their greater social orientation, given that functioning within social groups is cognitively demanding. However, Dr. Eric Barchas (a dog lover) has critiqued the study’s conclusion, arguing that many human social activities (such as keeping track of the participants on reality TV shows or the hottest new gossip) require the use of brain power and a social orientation but don’t indicate intelligence. He argues that people tend to use the wrong definition of smart (social focus, amenability to training, etc.) when attempting to determine which pet is more intelligent. Barchas does not believe cats are more intelligent either – he just asserts that the question is far from settled.
The uncritical reaction of dog lovers to the Oxford study is much like that of cat lovers to the study finding that cat owners are more likely to have university degrees that dog owners. Many commentators reported the study outcome as proof that cat people are smarter than dog people. However, the reality is that it’s cheaper and easier to keep a cat, so busy students who like both animals may choose cats just for the convenience. In other words, they choose a cat over a dog due to circumstances, not higher intelligence.
- Braun, D. (9 September 2008). “Neanderthal Brain Size at Birth Sheds Light on Human Evolution.” Newswatch.NationalGeographic.com.
- Douglas, K. (9 December 2009). “Dogs vs. Cats: The Great Pet Showdown.”New Scientist.
- McComb, K., Taylor, A., Wilson, C., & Charlton, B. (2009). “The Cry Embedded Within the Purr.” Current Biology, 19(13). Retrieved 17 December 2009 from the Academic Search Premier database.
- Miklósi, Á., Pongrácz, P., Lakatos, G., Topál, J., & Csányi, V. (2005). “A Comparative Study of the Use of Visual Communicative Signals in Interactions Between Dogs (Canis Familiaris) and Humans and Cats (Felis Catus) and Humans.” Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119(2), 179-186.
- Pongrácz, P., Viktória, V., Bánhegyi, P., & Miklósi, A. (2008). “How Does Dominance Rank Status Affect Individual and Social Learning Performance in the Dog (Canis Familiaris)?” Animal Cognition, 11: 75-82.
- Purves, D., Augustine, G.J., Fitzpatrick, D., et al. (2001). “‘Planning Neurons’ in the Monkey Frontal Cortex.” Neuroscience, 2nd Edition.
- Roth, G., & Dicke, U. (2005). “Evolution of the Brain and Intelligence.” Trends in Cognitive Science, 9(5): 250-257
- Shultz, S., & Dunbar, R. (2010). “Encephalization Is Not a Universal Macroevolutionary Phenomenon in Mammals But Is Associated with Sociality.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010.