How Smart Are Cats?

tabby kitten
Foster kitten, Nova, photobombs a picture of resident cat, Freya

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. Smart cats display their intelligence by showing interest in the world around them, applying various strategies to achieve their goals, learning from past experience, and communicating with humans and other pets.

Curiosity

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, as 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.

Resident cat, Sage, shows an interest in Starbug

Learning from experience and practice

Cats may appear unable to learn, but in many cases, it’s just that the subject matter doesn’t 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 (some cats 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. This “psychic intuition” is probably attributable to a cat’s superior hearing and ability to recognize the sound of his owner’s footsteps from far away.

A foster kitten learns to use a cardboard scratcher

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 patient teachers, including:

    • Begging
    • Coming when called
    • Eating using their paws to pick up the food
    • Fetching or catching 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, owners shouldn’t attempt to train cats in the same way they would train dogs. 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.

A foster kitten sees something interesting

Problem solving

Many cat owners have noticed the extraordinary lengths their pets will go to attain a desired goal, and the way that they 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 this strategy indicates some degree of intelligence.

Foster kitten, Helix, captures an artificial bird

Communication

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.

A foster kitten meows

Navigation skills

Cats have impressive memories for directions that often enable them to find their way home after travelling long distances. They do this by using the angle of the sun (which can be done even on cloudy days because the cat uses polarized light for wayfinding) and the Earth’s magnetic fields (attaching a magnet to a cat will disrupt his navigational skills).

The phenomenal feline navigational ability was demonstrated by Howie the Persian, who crossed 1,000 miles of Australian outback to find his family. Howie had been left in the care of his owner’s grandparents while she went on an overseas trip, but he disappeared from their home and showed up a year later on his owner’s doorstep. After cleaning the filthy, skinny, injured animal, she realized that it was Howie. He had fought his way back through a vast expanse of harsh desert wilderness to return to the family he loved.

A wandering cat stops by to say “hello”

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • 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.

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