All animals show their intelligence in different ways. But many pet parents will ponder the age-old question: are cats or dogs smarter?
Put simply, there is no straightforward answer. Both show similar intelligence traits, such as recognising vocalisations and being mentally stimulated by toys. But in many other respects, they’re very different animals—so you can’t make a direct comparison.
Instead, it’s better to explore the ways they’re individually intelligent. Cats, for example, have learned social skills, while dogs can be trained for all kinds of work environments.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on in their noggins.
Cat And Dog Brain Anatomy
Did you know the brains of cats and dogs are very similar in structure to those of humans? For example, they have an amygdala, which helps them recognise and respond to threats, and a hippocampus, for learning and memory.
Their brains also have frontal lobes, which help guide movements and vocalisations. However, while this section makes up 25% of the human brain, FirstVet reveals that, in cats, it only accounts for around 3%. In dogs, the frontal lobe occupies about 10% of their brain.
And what about neurons? These are messengers that carry information around the brain. Researchers have found the average dog’s brain is home to about 500 million neurons, while a cat’s brain comprises around 250 million neurons.
The same study also noted that brain size doesn’t necessarily correlate with neuron amounts. Dogs’ brains, for instance, have the same number of neurons as those of brown bears!
How Cats And Dogs Demonstrate Intelligence
There are myriad ways in which cats and dogs show off their cognitive skills—and, on many occasions, our furry friends show themselves to be more capable than we could imagine.
Dogs can learn to interact with computers
Sadly, no cute paw typing is involved—but research found that engaging in touchscreen computer activities (activated by tongue licks) helped maintain cognition in older dogs. Following training, canines were more motivated, keen to explore, and had better memory skills.
Dogs take on working roles
Dogs have long aided us in various tasks, from guiding blind individuals and sniffing out substances to rescuing climbers and carrying messages. Scent detection work is an example of their supreme cognitive abilities, explains Daniel Shaw, a certified dog behaviour consultant. “In [doing this], a dog has to learn to respond in a specific way to a particular scent (or scents) to earn a reward,” he says. “This is an amazing skill given just how good their sense of smell is and how many scents they are expected to discriminate between.”
Dogs can comprehend human language
They learn to sit when told, so does this mean dogs recognise human words? Not *quite*, states Shaw.
“They can’t understand language the same way we do,” he shares. “However, they can associate words with specific outcomes if those outcomes are meaningful to them. It’s not really known how many words the average dog can comprehend, but…it may be more than you expect.” Shaw points to the case of Chaser, a Border Collie trained to recognise over 1,000 nouns during her 15-year lifespan. Meanwhile, a German study saw a dog named Rico learn the names of around 200 items, and a Canadian study of 165 dogs reported an average understanding of 89 words.
Dogs can mimic human behaviours
One study found dogs mimicked actions learned from their owners, even if it meant missing out on a treat. Meanwhile, different researchers discovered that dogs typically yawned when their owners did, but not when they saw a stranger yawn. Awww alert: scientists believe our canine pals imitate the behaviours of their owners due to empathy and the bond they share.
Dogs were domesticated before any other animal
Canines were first trained to socialise and cohabit with humans as long as 23,000 years ago. Some experts even suggest that dogs were open to human interaction because they realised it was better for their survival (especially in cold climates) to team up for food rather than view us as competition.
Cats know an object is there, even if they can’t see it
Studies by Canadian researchers indicated cats understand ‘object permanence’, just like humans do. They demonstrated an awareness that an item existed—even when it was hidden behind a screen—and knew to seek it out.
Cats are able to learn and imitate human actions
“They have the ability to learn more complex behaviours (such as ‘sit’ or ‘high five’) with simple training techniques,” reveals Lucy Hoile, a certified clinical animal behaviourist.
A Japanese study demonstrated that, when a human engaged in certain actions—such as touching a box or resting their head on the table—the cat was able to mimic (and modify, when necessary) the majority of these.
Cats can put a name to the face of their kitty friends
Research indicates felines associate faces with names and voices. Scientists showed cats pictures of other cats who either lived in their neighbourhood or were selected randomly. Participant cats gazed at photos of cats they recognised for longer, especially when the photographed cat’s name was said by their respective owner.
Cats can understand (some) human language
“They can learn plenty of human words as cues for trained behaviours,” states Hoile. “For example, many will learn to come back to the owner when their name is called. The number of words they can comprehend depends on how many behaviours an owner wants to train.”
But Hoile notes that their understanding of language extends beyond words. “Cats are sensitive to human tone and emotional state when talking,” she says. “They will know if their owner is in a receptive mood and choose whether to approach.”
Cats can recognise their owner’s voice
Research conducted into domestic cats’ recognition of their owner’s voice saw recordings of different voices played to 20 kitties. Their reactions (such as vocal responses or head movements) highlighted that cats can distinguish humans by vocal cues alone.
Cats weren’t always social animals
From an evolutionary perspective, cats are happy roaming lonesome in the wild. However, their cognitive range has enabled them to adapt to domestic situations. Experts believe kitties are most friendly—to both humans and other cats—if they are handled and learn to socialise before seven weeks old.
While studies have investigated cognition in dogs and cats, there seems to have been more focus on canines. Some researchers have highlighted this issue, noting that further exploration should be carried out into cats’ mental abilities—and that doing so could help enhance the human-kitty bond.
Can I Make My Dog Or Cat Smarter?
Whether or not your pet is already a bit of a brainiac, you can help bolster their cognitive skills and ensure they stay mentally active.
Increase playtime for mental stimulation
Play is essential in keeping cats and dogs mentally sharp. We don’t just mean throwing a ball or waving a string: there are various cat puzzles and dog puzzles to get those brain cogs whirring.
Dog owners can get involved with games as well. For instance, hide and seek, where you hide and call your dog’s name to see if they can find you. You could even transform chores into a fun activity by training them to drop their toys into a basket.
Engage in training exercises to keep your pet learning
Despite the saying, a dog (or cat) is never too old to learn new tricks.
Dogs can master commands of all kinds, and seeing their progress is rewarding. Exploring new walking routes is also a good way for them to learn new sights, smells, and sounds. Plus, meeting other furry friends while you’re out and about is ideal for maintaining their socialisation skills.
Cats may not be so well known for following commands, but this doesn’t mean they can’t. “Cats can learn any number of behaviours and, if done slowly, with plenty of rewards, find it a fun and stimulating activity,” shares Hoile. Why not try clicker training? This is when you use a simple click device to indicate they’ve done a ‘correct’ behaviour.
Conduct an intelligence test
An IQ test (of sorts!) is one way to gauge your pet’s intelligence level. For example, the C-BARQ (canine behaviour and research questionnaire), established by the University of Pennsylvania, can be filled out by owners.
“This indicates how trainable your dog is compared to others of the same breed,” explains Shaw. “It also provides useful insights into things such as fear, separation-related problems, and excitability, which can be very informative for owners.”
The C-BARQ can be found here, and—good news—there’s also a version for cats called FE-BARQ.
You can also set your own activities to see how smart they are, while simultaneously encouraging them to use their brain. For example, why not try simple hide-and-seek games with toys or time how long it takes for them to respond to a verbal or visual cue?
Eats for a healthy brain
Feeding your pet specific foods won’t raise their IQ to Einstein level. However, mealtimes play an important role in keeping your furry friend’s brain in tip-top shape.
Healthy cat foods include those packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals. Meanwhile, foods such as eggs, Greek yogurt, and pumpkin can all aid in keeping your dog’s body and mind healthy. Don’t forget treats, too—especially for training rewards!
Consider the breed
It’s thought some cat and dog breeds have a natural headstart in intelligence. For example, Border Collies, Poodles, and Golden Retrievers are considered particularly clever dogs. However, as Shaw notes, “it depends what you classify as intelligence”—as breeds can excel in different areas.
What about felines? Scottish Fold, Siamese, and Abyssinian are believed to be especially smart cat breeds. But if your kitty isn’t one of these, it doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent. “There is often more differentiation within the same breed than between breeds,” reveals Hoile.
There’s no denying that both varieties of our furry friends are smarter than some might give them credit for.
Many studies show how they use their cognitive abilities to adapt to situations—and let’s not forget their emotional intelligence, either. Every day, cats and dogs show their smarts through affection or choosing their favourite human. They also have their own love languages: dogs hold eye contact, for example, while cats enjoy giving tender head butts.
We think you’ll agree: it seems only fair they both take the top step of the winner’s podium!