Imagine a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, with 20 friends and relatives, all pet lovers, gathered to celebrate. Except dissension has erupted, and heated sides have formed, and yes, the fur is flying. The battle is not over politics or religion, but over the age-old debate: Are dogs smarter than cats? Or vice versa?
New research may have a hint, so you may want to send this article out to all your pet-owning relatives before Thanksgiving so they’re not blindsided, no matter what “team” they’re on. A group of scientists studied the relative number of neurons in cat brains and dog brains, because neurons reflect cognitive ability. One of the researchers, Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University, said, “Neurons are the basic information processing units. The more units you find in the brain, the more cognitively capable the animal is.”
The upshot: Dog brains, whether in small or large dogs, have about 500 million neurons, or double that of a domesticated cat. And that means dogs have double the cognitive—or thinking—capacity of cats. So perhaps bigger is better, at least where brain size is concerned.
And scientists also have hypothesized that instead of evolving from wolves, dogs essentially “invented themselves,” as a survival mechanism, by reading human cues and ingratiating themselves to our human ancestors millennia ago. That was definitely a smart move.
How Smart Is Your Dog, Anyway?
Fancy research is one thing. But can you actually measure your dog’s intelligence, and if so, is that useful? There are tests that provide surprisingly detailed results about the type of brain/personality your dog has. Some dogs are “problem solvers” and need jobs to keep them occupied – or they may decide to solve the problem of how to jump on the counter and tip over the dog food bin while you’re out. Others are happy to be couch potatoes and sidekicks—yet are adept at reading their owner’s body and facial expressions and adapting their behavior accordingly.
And when it comes to actively seeking an intelligent dog breed, you might be careful what you wish for. The smartest breeds—border collies, Labradors, and the like—really do need tasks to solve, or training that works with their hard-wired behavior, and not against it. Leaving those working breeds to their own devices can result in anxious or even destructive behavior.
Carly, my 21-pound rescue terrier mix, is, I like to say, “just smart enough.” She’s learned a few tricks, but more importantly, she’s calm and sweet-tempered, up for almost any adventure, and well-behaved in almost any situation. Alas, we discovered she has a sweet tooth as big as all outdoors; any walk we take in July by a certain neighbor’s house means she’ll strip the entire bottom of his raspberry bush before we can remember to cross the street. Luckily, the neighbor is a dog lover. And I’ve bought him baskets of replacement berries. But she’s been able to get away with the berry burglaries—because she acts so incredibly sweet. Genius.
The Case for Cats
But dog owners, don’t think for a minute this age-old debate is settled. A recent Japanese study that measured memory and recall in dogs and cats showed that cats were just as capable as dogs of remembering complex situations – like which bowls they’d eaten from already and which they hadn’t.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the study also showed that cats can recognize and respond to their owners’ facial expressions, just like dogs can. And for those of us who have and love both dogs and cats, we see different kinds of intelligence at work in our pets and our interactions with them.
Dogs may more readily take to training and tricks, for instance, but some cats enjoy them too. My friends Katherine and Mark own a Turkish van cat, an ancient breed prized for its intelligence and loyalty. As a kitten, Cato actually taught his owners to play fetch with him with a toy mouse, sometimes for 60 or 90 minutes at a time. One morning, when Mark grew tired of the game, he turned his attention back to his morning coffee and iPad… only to look up to see Cato plop the mouse right into his coffee cup. That’s pretty clear communication, don’t you think?
In a mixed household, the intelligence (or sometimes lack thereof) in both species plays out in unexpected ways. Some dogs and cats tussle for the fun of it; some, not so much. But in an integrated household—one with dogs and cats—the smartest in each breed does his or her best to get along. After all, they’re never going to find a better setup.