All cats are smarter than we are. . . otherwise we’d be the ones at home all day on the sofa.
OK, seriously, let’s start again. How smart is your cat?
How Smart is Smart?
When trying to work out how clever cats are, straight away we hit a problem. Whilst our canine cousins are eager to please and will problem solve to earn a reward, cats are cannier than that. Typically behaviourists assess animal intelligence by seeing how long it takes them to learn a task, such as pushing a lever. But what if the species in question (cats) couldn’t care less about the stupid lever?
How can you test a cat, if the cat doesn’t want to be tested?
Indeed, there’s an argument that a reluctance to take part in meaningless (to the cat) tests is a sign of intelligence. . . that’s my story and I’m sticking to it! With cats being solitary hunters, they’re not behaviourally geared to wasting energy or co-operating with others, which makes them a poor test subject because it’s difficult to motivate them.
Of course cats do learn and can be trained. But it’s a matter of motivation. To train a cat you have to find their must-have treat that they are prepared to get off the sofa for. . . when they’re in the mood.
What About Brain Size?
Can we make life easier by looking at a cat’s brain size?
Actually, yes and no. Indeed, this is the purr-fect example of quality over quantity. In a league table of the physical mass of the brain relative to body weight, cats score as follows:
- Humans 2%
- Dogs 2%
- Cats 9%
So on paper a cat’s brain is smaller than a dog’s. . . but
The part of the brain concerned with problem solving, decision making, and communication skills is called the cerebral cortex. The exciting news is that a cat’s cerebral cortex contains twice the neurones (300 million) than the equivalent area in a dog. In other words, their brain may be smaller but its wired to digital rather than analogue and much better equipped to do the job.
Testing Your Cat
Intelligence is highly individual, not least because being smart is ultimately about doing what you need to survive and thrive. Thus we might call a cat a clever that could play the piano like a pro, but what about the cat who can hunt their own supper? Do we recognize that as being smart? Probably not.
So whilst the piano-playing kitty is less likely to survive than a good old-fashioned mouser, our attitude to a virtuoso cat probably says more about the human perception of what makes for intelligence in a cat!
Is Your Cat Brighter Than a Dog?
Traditionally we think of a dog that does tricks as clever. But what about in the survival stakes?
Ask yourself the following:
- Could I leave my cat for a weekend provided they had food and a litter box? [Now substitute the word cat for ‘dog’.]
- How would my cat do if she was accidentally shut outside for a couple of hours?
- Which gets up to least trouble if left unattended: a cat or a dog?
On the whole, cats have a better mental capacity to think on their paws and stay out of trouble than a dog.
Memory or recalling information at a later time is a sign of smartness. Think of a fish with a three-second memory and you get the picture.
Check out your cat’s memory by taking a favourite treat and putting it under an object. Let the cat see you hide it, but then put the cat in another room. Then let her back in, and see if she seeks out the treat.
Does your cat have a way of telling you what she wants or showing that she’s not happy? This is called emotional intelligence and is a sign of mental sophistication. So the cat that makes a different sound when she wants to ear rub to when she wants supper, is communicating in a sophisticated and smart way.
Check out your cat again. This time take a favourite toy and hide it behind a book or piece of paper. Seeking and finding behaviours become established in human children around the age of 18 months. So a cat finding a toy is equivalent intelligence to that of a toddler. Indeed, behaviourists generally agree that a cat’s intelligence matches that of a two to three year old child (but without the tantrums.)
All of which just goes to show that cats do whatever they want and aren’t bothered about proving how clever they are. After all, in a cat’s mind to do otherwise would be foolish. . . which in itself is a sign of profound intelligence on a level we humans can only aspire to.
How smart is your cat? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.