Are dogs smarter than cats, or are cats more intelligent than dogs? Recent studies provide some insights.
Information processing capacity
Dogs 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 brain is correlated with intelligence. One study found that cats have 300 million neurons compared to 160 million for dogs (Roth & Dicke, 2005). Another study found that dogs have between 429 million and 530 million cortical neurons compared to 250 million for cats (Jardim-Messeder et al., 2014). Counts may change again with subsequent studies.
For comparison, a human has around 16 billion cortical neurons (Herculano-Houzel, 2009) and a long-finned pilot whale has 37.2 billion (Mortensen et al., 2014).
Although information processing capacity is important, it’s not the only indicator of intelligence.
Smart dogs can show an impressive level of understanding, and they are able 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 most cats are neither motivated nor compliant when participating in research, it’s difficult to gauge their understanding (Miklósi et al., 2005). However, cats performed similarly to dogs in a recent study of responses to human facial expressions, gestures, and emotions (Briggs, 2017).
Problem solving ability
Dogs have been studied far more 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 evolved as a way to communicate with humans, so they 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 (Lyons, 2006).
Japanese researchers who conducted memory tests with cats and dogs found no significant differences in their abilities (Briggs, 2017).
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 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. Moreover, those who have spent time with many cats or dogs will have noticed that some are more intelligent than others. Each species has its geniuses and 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
- Braun, D. (9 September 2008). “Neanderthal Brain Size at Birth Sheds Light on Human Evolution.” Newswatch.National Geographic.com.
- Briggs, H. (2017). “Cats May Be as Intelligent as Dogs, Say Scientists.” BBC News, January 25.
- Douglas, K. (9 December 2009). “Dogs vs. Cats: The Great Pet Showdown.” New Scientist.
- Herculano-Houzel, S. (2009). “The Human Brain in Numbers: A Linearly Scaled-Up Primate Brain.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 3, 31
- Jardim-Messeder, D., et al. (2017). “Dogs Have the Most Neurons, Though Not the Largest Brain: Trade-Off Between Body Mass and Number of Neurons in the Cerebral Cortex of Large Carnivoran Species.” Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, 11, 118.
- Knapton, S. (2017). “The Truth About Cats and Dogs – Dogs Are Smarter, Say Scientists.” The Guardian, Nov. 30.
- Lyons, L. (3 April 2006). “Why Do Cats Purr.” Scientific American, ScientificAmerican.com.
- McComb, K., et al. (2009). “The Cry Embedded Within the Purr.” Current Biology, 19(13).
- Miklósi, Á., et al. (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.
- Mortensen, H. S., et al. (2014). “Quantitative Relationships in Delphinid Neocortex.” Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, 8, 132.
- Pongrácz, P., et al. (2008). “How Does Dominance Rank Status Affect Individual and Social Learning Performance in the Dog (Canis Familiaris)?” Animal Cognition, 11: 75-82.
- Purves, D., et al. (2001). “‘Planning Neurons’ in the Monkey Frontal Cortex.” Neuroscience, 2nd Ed.
- 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.