Just like everything else with the domestic cat, measuring intelligence is complicated. Why? Because animal intelligence is measured in a variety of different ways.
Plus, cats have a short attention span, making studying them in repetitive experiments extremely difficult because they lose interest (I highly doubt that's shocking to you).
Let’s talk about what they’re really good at, how they learn, how long they remember, and what traits make them stand out from other mammals.
Let’s find out.
Ninety percent of a cat’s brain has a similar structure to humans, and behaviorists estimate their intelligence to be similar to an 18-month to 2-year-old toddler.
The cerebral cortex is where decision-making and complex problem solving take place. Although it was long stated cats had 300 million neurons and dogs 120 million, a more recent study showed cats have closer to 250 million, while dogs have 530 million. By comparison, humans have around 16 billion.
Some scientists say this means dogs are smarter than cats, but others argue that you can’t really compare species to species because each has their own skillset which helps them survive. The debate will continue probably for a long time, and definitely until more studies are done.
One pretty cool fact is that cats have more nerves in the visual areas of the brain than humans and most mammals. This could mean their ability to process and digest visual information is superior, or that they’re simply able to gather more details from things they see.
Learning and Solving Puzzles
Cats learn by trial and error. For them, they need to “do” something to learn it – not just see it. In fact, they’re better at solving puzzles than dogs. In experiments, a dog seeks a human to help, but a cat works on a puzzle independently until they solve it.
Tricks aren’t just for dogs. Cats can also be trained to perform complex tricks, especially if they’re fun, and as long as there’s a food reward involved.
With more impulse and less patience than a dog, a cat will abandon an activity they don’t feel is rewarding and go elsewhere (they literally walk away if they don’t see a point or are bored).
You can see how studying them is difficult, and why scientists sometimes need to study the cat in its home instead of in a laboratory environment.
Additionally, cats do understand human pointing gestures and will follow them, especially if food is involved. They can also understand a large quantity from a smaller one, which researchers believe aids them in going after prey that will yield more food (especially helpful for a nursing mama).
Cats have a lower social IQ than dogs. A lower social IQ doesn’t mean they don’t recognize you or know when you are upset. Many cat owners will speak to cats comforting them when they’re sad or sick, but a cat will put their needs first. Here’s why.
Because dogs have been domesticated longer, they are more attuned to the emotions and needs of their owners. With less domestication, cats are more self-centered as a means of survival. If their focus was on our emotions all the time, they wouldn’t be as independent and self-sufficient when it comes to hunting and surviving.
Although cats fall a bit short in the ways we measure social IQs, they do engage in complex social behavior within their own species, developing hierarchies, whether in the wild or on the couch.
You’ll notice each cat has a particular “spot” on the couch or bed and claims it as their own. The point of this is to prevent fighting and injuries, which can be a death sentence in the wild. Outdoor colonies also seem to create a matriarchy, where related females hang out together and share in raising young.
First, let’s take a look at short-term memory. Cats have a sense of object permanence, where an object isn’t directly visible, like a toy under a couch or prey under a shed. This is a trait not even very young human babies have. During tests, cats were able to remember where an object disappeared and search to find it.
One study tested a cat’s short-term memory as it related to leg movements and avoiding obstacles, and it showed the cat’s memories lasted for more than 24 hours! Like in humans, repetition also improves a cat’s memory.
Can cats tell time? Yes. Studies show cats have the ability to distinguish different periods of time. This explains why a cat waits at the window for you to come home from work or starts meowing by its bowl around dinnertime.
Cats also remember locations where they’ve been previously fed, most likely because that instinct would help them survive outdoors.
Now, let’s look at a cat’s long-term memory, which is probably up to 200 times better than a dog’s. Scientists believe they only remember things that are beneficial to them (of course); this includes people and animals they bond with, as well as people and animals they don’t like.
They’re believed to remember events that are either very positive or very negative and attached to something that’s important to them like food or even something emotional (like abuse or injury).
They can suffer grief from losing an animal or human family member, with symptoms including a decreased appetite, inappropriate litter box usage, and even lashing out at other animals or humans.
Cats Are Smart
With the ability to solve puzzles, remember people for years, stash their favorite toy, and remember every single spot you’ve ever given them something to eat, it’s safe to say cats are smart. If they ever deem it worth their time and our experiments interesting enough, maybe we’ll find out how truly smart they are.
Heuer, Victoria. PetMD, 4 Facts About Your Cat’s Brain.
Marek, Ramona. Fear Free Happy Homes, Feline Intelligence: How Your Cat’s Brain Works.
Modcat. How Much Do Cats Remember?
O’Leary, Denise. Mind Matters, In What Ways Are Cats Intelligent.
Petful.com, How Much Do Cats Remember? More Than You Might Think.
Purina, How Intelligent Are Cats?
Article by Elizabeth Ann 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist