Put to the test, we asked a veterinary expert which pet exhibits more intelligence.

By Roxanna Coldiron
December 16, 2020
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The age-old question among self-described dog people and cat people is, "Which animal is smarter?" People who prefer dogs are inclined to say that dogs are smarter than cats, while cat people will, of course, claim the opposite to be true. The truth of the matter is, scientific research continues to explore the intelligence of both animals. "The answers animals can give us about their capabilities are only as good as the questions we ask them," explains Dr. Annie Valuska, Ph.D., senior pet behavior expert at Purina Cat Chow. "Perhaps a dog outperforms a cat because the study was conducted in a lab environment, and cats are prey animals that have a suite of (adaptive) behavioral responses in a potentially scary situation that leads to them not participating."

Here, we asked Dr. Valuska to explain how intelligence in these animals is defined and put to the test., and the results of studies.

cat leaning on golden retriever
Credit: Chen Dongshan / Getty Images

The Definition and Test of Intelligence

What is intelligence? In people, intelligence generally refers to the ability to remember details, like facts, as well as the ability to solve complex and creative problems. Scientific studies seem to test for whether dogs or cats are able to learn commands or perform certain tasks. "Dogs are typically introduced to strange people and places as part of their daily lives (walks, car rides, doggie day care, and so on) and have a long history of cooperation with humans throughout our species' evolution," explains Dr. Valuska. "Dogs have also been selectively bred for specific behavioral traits. The result? Dogs are primed for success when scientists want to take them into a lab or barge into their homes and ask them to perform."

But this technique for testing cat intelligence does not work. This is because cats have different social lives and most likely domesticated themselves. Cats are not selectively bred for desired traits like dogs, and they tend to be more independent. "As a result, getting cats to participate in the same experiments that have shown off dogs' smarts can be difficult," explains Dr. Valuska. "However, I think it is a mistake to assume that this difficulty speaks to a lack of cat intelligence!"

To test intelligence in cats, scientists look at the following categories: Object permanence or, in other words, "If you hide something from your cat's view, does he know it's still there? Bonus—memory: will he remember it's there even if you distract him for up to 30 seconds?" Another is cause and effect: "Anyone whose cat has learned that knocking something off the table is a great way to get your attention can testify that many cats pass this test with flying colors!" says Dr. Valuska. Plus, an understanding of time (at least in reference to when it's time to feed them) and human cues (If you point at something, does your cat follow your finger? Does your cat respond to their name?)

Dogs are tested in additional categories, like whether they can learn commands, understand different quantities and learn words such as the names of toys. "A few 'genius' dogs are capable of learning the names of around 100 different toys, and selecting the right toy out of a pile when asked," says Dr. Valuska.

So, who's smarter?

People often associate an animal's intelligence with how easy it is to train the animal. Since dogs are generally easier to train, the assumption is that the dog is smarter than the cat. However, it's possible to train cats—you just have to approach it a different way. Both species will develop bonds with their humans through regular interaction and behave in ways that may not be as easy to test in a laboratory environment. What works for testing dog intelligence is not going to work when testing cat intelligence. "There isn't an easy answer [to whether cats or dogs are smarter]," explains Dr. Valuska. "[There's a] case for focusing instead on the unique abilities of each species (and in fact, each individual animal)." The important thing is that we love our animals and cultivate their abilities through play and exercise as much as possible.

Comments (2)

Anonymous
January 22, 2021
I tend to agree that a blanket statement on either cats or dogs intelligence is not a good thing. They are all different as we have witnessed through years of working with both. Each one is a little different based on breed and how they are nurtured by the owner.
Anonymous
December 27, 2020
I don't think blanket statements regarding animal intelligence can ever be accurate. I grew up with both cats and dogs. Some of the dogs were smart, others were just plain dumb. There are many factors that determine species intelligence. Genetics, early nurturing or lack thereof, training, proper interaction (many people treat cats like dogs, way too rough) are just a few. As a lifelong cat lover, I've had the opportunity to observe many cats with varying intelligence levels. Our current kitty, a 7-year old polydactyl tortie is the smartest yet. We talk to her like she's a small human. Through voice tone and word recognition, she understands a lot. Cats are individuals just like people, dogs, etc, thus they should not be categorized under a single portrayal.