By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 13 April 2011)
As with people and other animals, some cats are brighter than others. Anyone who has lived in a multi-cat household will have firsthand experience of this fact. Smart cats display their intelligence by showing interest in the world around them, applying various strategies in an attempt to achieve their goals, learning from past experience, and communicating with humans and other pets.
The old expression “curiosity killed the cat” begs the question, why would an animal lacking in intelligence, driven purely by instinct, endanger his own life just to learn about an unfamiliar object or situation that caught his interest? Why should he show an interest in objects and situations that don’t have any direct bearing on his survival? This is a very human thing to do. Many people have risked their lives in order to satisfy their curiosity.
Much like human children, kittens achieve a higher level of intelligence if they are provided with a stimulating environment from birth in which they are handled and played with regularly and encounter many different types of objects and people – in other words, an environment that stimulates curiosity and learning. Kittens that grow up in an environment of sensory deprivation never attain normal functioning.
Ability to Learn from Experience and Practice
Cats may appear unable to learn, but in many cases, it’s just that the subject matter doesn’t particularly interest them. Cats learn from experience when they find the information relevant, which is why they can develop phobias quite easily. After a single traumatic experience, such as being roughly handled by a certain type of person (i.e., a child), the cat may subsequently avoid that category of person completely.
Cats are also good at remembering useful information (such as noises they have made that achieved the desired response from their owners) and they can recognize the people and animals they have interacted with. They can also learn their owners’ schedules. As a result, some cats will act as alarm clocks, attempting to wake their owners if they sleep past the usual time. In addition, many cats have the uncanny ability of knowing when their owners are about to arrive home, even when they aren’t returning at the usual time. It’s been theorized that this ability stems from a cat’s superior hearing and the capacity to recognize the sound of his owner’s footsteps from far away.
Hunting is also a learned behaviour. Unless a kitten is taught how to hunt by his mother, he may never learn how to do it properly. Cats are also able to learn a variety of other behaviours if they have a patient teacher, including:
- Coming when called
- Eating using their paws to pick up the food
- Fetching objects
- Hiding food in a box
- Jumping through hoops
- Leaping at targets
- Meowing on command
- Opening doors
- Playing dead
- Playing simple notes on a piano
- Rolling over
- Running obstacle courses
- Shaking hands
- Sitting on command
- Using a human toilet
- Using a litter box
- Using a scratch post
- Walking on a leash
However, an owner shouldn’t attempt to train a cat in the same way that he would train a dog. Cats don’t respond well to punishment or sharp vocal tones, which just make them aggressive or fearful. Instead, owners should use rewards and clicker training.
Many cat owners have noticed the extraordinary lengths some pets will go to attain a desired goal, and the way that they will try multiple strategies, rejecting an approach that proves ineffective and trying something new, rather than simply doing the same thing over and over again. Cats have also been known to problem solve by observing humans. For example, a cat may watch a person open a door by turning the knob and later jump up on a nearby object and attempt to turn the doorknob with his paws. Such attempts are inevitably thwarted by a lack of opposable thumbs, but the fact that a cat would try such a strategy indicates some degree of intelligence.
Some cats are more vocal than others, but all cats communicate. Feline communication may involve anything from cheerfully greeting an owner when he arrives home from work to asking for food to expressing anxiety about a situation.
Cats have impressive memories for directions that often enable them to find their way home after travelling long distances. This superior navigation ability is believed to derive from two things: using the angle of the sun for navigation (which can be done even on cloudy days because the cat uses polarized light for wayfinding) and being sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic fields. This latter hypothesis was borne out when it was found that attaching a magnet to a cat will disrupt his navigational skills.
A story that dramatically illustrates the phenomenal feline navigational ability is that of Howie the Persian, who crossed 1,000 miles of brutal Australian outback to find his family. Howie had been left in the care of his owner Kirsten’s grandparents while Kirsten went on an overseas trip, but had disappeared from their home while Kirsten was away. A year later, a mangy stray showed up on Kirsten’s doorstep. Upon cleaning up the filthy, skinny, injured animal, they realized that it was Howie, who had fought his way back through a vast expanse of harsh desert and wilderness to return to the family he loved.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Canfield, Jack, Hansen, Mark Victor, Becker, Marty, & Kline, Carol. (1999). Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover’s Soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc.
- Schneck, Marcus, & Caravan, Jill. (1990). Cat Facts. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Inc.