How Smart Are Cats?

Kitten playing with a green ball

When you watch your cats going about their day-to-day lives, it's easy to see signs of their obvious intelligence. They're quite good at aggressively reminding you when it's time for them to eat, and they're also quite good at giving you a wide berth when they see you pull out the cat carrier. It often seems we're more predictable to cats than they are to us. While scientists have studied cat behaviour for centuries, these often-inscrutable animals aren't very amenable to being studied, so it can be hard to tell exactly how smart cats are.

In this article, we'll examine the state of modern research regarding feline intelligence and wade into the ancient question of whether cats or dogs are smarter. We'll also take a look at the smartest cat breeds and examine the unlikely history of a cat-based mail delivery service in the late 19th century.

How Intelligent Are Cats?

Even though cats' brains are physically much smaller than ours, feline brain structure is actually quite similar to that of humans — about 90% the same, in fact. 

Cats have more nerve cells in the areas of their brain that control sight than most other mammals, including humans. All told, the average cat has about 300 million neurons in its cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that's specifically associated with planning actions, solving problems and making rational decisions. The cerebral cortex also stores long- and short-term memory, which helps explain why cats are better at learning things through doing them than simply seeing them being done. 

Still, though, this doesn't answer the exact question of how intelligent cats are. The answer really hinges on how we choose to define intelligence.

Which Cat Breeds Are the Smartest?

Cat enthusiasts usually point to three specific breeds of cats when asked which ones are the smartest: Bengals, Abyssinians and Siamese. These breeds have picked up reputations as being exceptionally smart due to the fact that they're extremely social and friendly cats who love interacting with humans — even to the point of learning tricks to please them. 

However, clear signs of exceptional intelligence can be found in other breeds as well. Take the example of Nora, a tabby cat who was smart enough to figure out how to play the piano without being directly trained. Nora's owner gives piano lessons in the home, and Nora was eventually able to pick up some rudimentary skills from imitating what she saw.

How Smart Are Cats Compared to Dogs?

If you want to get into a heated debate with a dog lover, bringing up the relative intelligence of kitties and pups is a pretty reliable way to kick it off. Both cat and dog lovers have strong arguments for their respective sides.

Dogs are popularly considered more intelligent than cats, primarily because dogs are much easier to train. That's partially due to the fact that humans domesticated dogs before they domesticated cats; therefore, dogs are usually more interested in figuring out how to please their owners. A dog is likely to seem much more intelligent than a cat when it comes to retrieving specific items, defending yards, assisting disabled people and participating in search and rescue operations.

Cat lovers say cats are actually smarter than dogs specifically because they're not as willing to do whatever their owners or trainers want them to do. From this perspective, cats are too independent and intelligent to perform tasks that don't directly benefit them. 

In the words of author Mary Bly, "Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you."

Studies Comparing the Intelligence of Cats and Dogs

There are a few scientific studies that give us hard data on the question of cat intelligence versus dog intelligence. One 2009 study found that dogs are better at counting specific quantities of items than cats are, which supports the theory that dogs are more intelligent.

A different study, published in 2006, found that cats and dogs approach puzzle-solving differently. In this study, dogs that got stumped trying to solve a puzzle would eventually go to their owners for help, but cats would just keep plugging away at the puzzle until they solved it. 

While this might imply that cats are smarter than dogs, it also reflects the fact that dogs are more social than cats. In the end, it's hard to directly compare the intelligence of the two species. 

The Short Story of the Kitty Express

As we've discussed above, dogs tend to be better at helping humans perform tasks and achieve objectives than cats are, which is part of why many people consider dogs to be smarter. However, there's at least one remarkable example of cats helping out with a service you might not expect — late 19th-century mail delivery in Belgium

The cats in question were part of a short experiment run by the Belgian Society for the Elevation of the Domestic Cat. The organization used 37 cats to send written messages to and from area villages; the messages were placed in little waterproof containers attached to the cats' necks. Every single one of the cats successfully completed its mission within 24 hours, with the quickest cat delivering its payload in less than 5 hours. 

The program eventually fell by the wayside since it was faster to use messenger pigeons, but the experiment showed that cats can also demonstrate the objective-based intelligence commonly associated with dogs.

While science hasn't been able to objectively quantify exactly how smart cats are, it's pretty clear from decades of study that they're quite intelligent indeed. To continue examining why and how cats act the way they do, check out our feline behaviour hub.

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