While scientific researchers wrestle with studies defining animal intelligence and comparing species, these two veterinarians have a little fun with their take on what's really special about your favorite feline's particular brand of smarts.

By Brendan Howard
October 15, 2020
Advertisement
Tudor Costache / Getty

You love your cat. So you want your cat to be smart—smarter than dogs, more clever than your least favorite relatives, and certainly picky enough to pick you as her No. 1 favorite human. You want proof cats are smarter than dogs and to know if your cat is particularly brainy. Our veterinary experts have some serious (and entertaining) opinions on this.

Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs?

To find out, one researcher counted neurons in brain tissue: Cats had less, dogs had more. (You can hear from researchers in this PBS Newshour video about whether cats are smarter than dogs.) The more neurons, the more capacity for thinking, tasks and intelligence, right? Sure, but to do what? Animals are smart enough to survive in the world they live in. If one animal can use tools, another animal picks up on your emotions, and a third picks up on your hand motions, well, which is smarter?

Another researcher checked to see if pets would look at something you pointed at and figure out you wanted them to look at it; dogs, for sure, did, but—surprise!—cats did, too.

It turns out that veterinarians who've spent years looking at domestic cats have opinions about how smart and special your feline friends are. Remember, these veterinarians are a little biased (like you), because they love all the ways that cats show preference, cleverness, and connection with people.

What Makes Cats Smart?

Anna Foster, DVM with the national hospital chain Veterinary Emergency Group, says it comes down to what you value. When it comes to loyalty and the “smarts” behind social connection and bonding, maybe dogs win. (Don't read this story about a senior dog hovering around her owner's graveside if you don't want to cry.) But if we're talking about hunting in the wild, cats win. (Does your cat need you around to go hunting when he wants to snatch bugs, lizards, birds, and other small animals? Nope.)

Cats don't need you to have a good time, according to Foster. “The ability to think and act independently? Cats have this. They wait for you to walk away before they do stuff.”

Dr. Kelly St. Denis, current president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, thinks cats’ independence rules their roosts: “Dogs have masters. Cats have staff.”

“This obviously suggests that cats are smarter, because they employ—rather than serve—humans,” St. Denis jokes.

This board-certified feline veterinarian says cats can learn tricks (like dogs), may know more human words than we thought, and develop special meows, trills, and chirps to communicate with their staff (err, owners).

Dogs seem to win out in these discussions because they learn what we want and do it. Cats are different.

“Cats have a specific agenda and seem to require that we mold ourselves to their plans, not the other way around,” St. Denis says.

The alluring aloofness and independence cats display doesn't mean they need less medical care than more vocal, more attentive pooches. Cats’ independence can mask disease and illness, says St. Denis.

“Humans often assume that because cats are not complaining, and are so independent, that they don't need to see a veterinarian,” she says. “Their ability to hide illness makes their visits to the vet all the more critical.”

Which Cats Breeds Are the Smartest?

If you're a smart cat owner in need of a particularly talented feline, there are a few smart cat breeds with particular dispositions that might make a fabulous fit for you. Some cats, like Siamese, are big talkers. Other breeds, like the Abyssinian, Scottish fold, and Savannah cats, are addicted to play. And Tonkinese cats love attention. This doesn't mean every member of these breeds match these exact characteristics, but you may have a better shot at a better fit.

How to Test Your Cat’s Intelligence

Researcher Kristyn Vitale shared details of her work delving into feline intelligence looking at name recognition, attention to human moods, and, most importantly, a cat’s preference for time with their owner over a chance to eat. Best of all, the team who wrote about her work at the American Association for the Advancement of Science derived a few quick tests you can try on your house cat. 

Sounds like it's time to see if your cat is Einstein or “I've Seen Smarter.”