How Smart Are Cats? Here’s What Science Cannot Tell Us

It takes a certain amount of intelligence to be judgmental and superior all of the time, which is preliminary proof that cats are pretty smart creatures. But just how smart are cats? Here's a quick look at everything you need to know about the basics of feline intelligence.

How to tell if a cat is smart.

So, here's the thing about feline intelligence: It's incredibly difficult to measure. Basically, every time scientists try to test how smart cats are, the cats are just like, "Screw you and your experiment." As a result, it's impossible to tell if the cats can't perform the tasks in an experiment, or if they're just stubbornly refusing to. It's not clear if the cats don't understand what the researchers want from them, or if they understand and just DGAF.

In one study, conducted by Christian Agrillo of the University of Padova in Italy, scientists tried to determine if cats are able to count. Agrillo told David Grimm, author of the book Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, that many times during the study, "We had to say to the owners, 'Sorry, we can't use your cat. It's not interested in the experiment' … I can assure you that it's easier to work with fish than cats."

Often, during the experiments, cats would just walk away and not participate at all. We know — a cat just doing what it wants regardless of what the humans around it are trying to accomplish. Crazy, right?

Cute european cat portrait
credit: SensorSpot/E+/GettyImages

So, are cats smart?

The short answer is ¯_(ツ)_/¯.

The longer answer is: They're probably pretty smart, compared to other animals. Since many cats willfully refuse to participate in experiments, we are left with few concrete clues about feline cognition.

According to PetMD, cats' brains take up about 0.9 percent of their body mass, compared to 1.2 percent for the average dogs' brain. Cats have a complex cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for information processing. Their cerebral cortices contain about twice as many neurons as those of dogs', according to the site. Because this part of the brain controls the interpretation of information, language, rational decision making and complex problem solving, it could hint that cats actually are super smart relative to other household pets.

"Cats have more nerve cells in the visual areas of their brain, a part of the cerebral cortex [the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, planning, memory, and language-processing], than humans and most other mammals," Dr. Berit Brogaard explained in Psychology Today.

How smart are cats compared to humans?

There are actually some intense similarities between the brains of humans and cats. According to Petful, the parts of our brains that process emotions are nearly identical to the same part of cats' brains.

The site also cites findings from Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, animal behavior chief at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Boston, that suggests humans and cats have similar brain structure over all. Cat and human brains are both composed of gray and white matter. Both cat and human cerebral cortices are comprised of temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes with the different regions connected in the same manner. Cats also think and process information from their senses in the same way as humans do, and cats have both long and short term memory.

None of this offers any definitive proof about how cats' intelligence compares to humans, of course, but it does suggest that they operate in a similar fashion and might be capable of some of the same complex problem-solving and emotional reasoning that humans engage in.

In other words: Your cat might actually be plotting world domination.

Are cats smarter than dogs?

This is the age-old question debated for eons by cat- and dog-lovers across the globe: Who is smarter, cats or dogs?

Let's start with the Team Dog data. Fact: Dogs have larger brains than cats. Dogs' brains, on average, are about 1.2 percent of their body mass, compared to 0.9 for cats, according to PetMD. Dogs have also been domesticated far longer than cats and, likely as a result, are much more trainable and more in tune with humans.

Dogs are also demonstrably able to learn large numbers of words and commands. Take Chaser, for example, a Border Collie featured on 60 Minutes as the smartest dog alive. Chaser has mastered a vocabulary of 1,000 unique words (for context, the average human toddler knows 300 words).

There's a reason we don't see search and rescue cats or Seeing Eye cats. But is the reason because cats can't do those jobs or because they just don't want to?

That's what we don't know. Now for the Team Cat side of things. First, even though cats have smaller brains than dogs, that doesn't necessarily make them less intelligent. Dr. Lorie Huston for PetMD explained, "relative brain size isn't always the best indicator of intelligence. And the cat brain shares some amazing similarities with our own brains."

Because the brain structure of both cats and humans are alike, structurally speaking (see the previous section for details), it's also quite possible that cats' smaller brains are more optimized for complex thinking than dogs' brains.

All we can say for sure is that dogs are more trainable and more able (or willing, at least) to connect with humans and work socially with them. Cats, on the other hand, could be hidden geniuses that just don't care to share their skills with us. Or they could be laser-chasing dumb dumbs. We might never know for sure.

Cat intelligence facts

  • Cats' brains are very similar to humans' brains in a lot of ways.
  • Cats notoriously hate participating in research studies, making it hard for scientists to come up with an definitive facts about their intelligence.
  • Cats' brains take up 0.9 percent of their total body mass, compared to 1.2 percent for the average dog.
  • Cats are very adept at following visual signals (like pointing) from humans.
  • Cats, like dogs, have the ability to understand other species (including humans) and communicate with them.
  • There are intelligence tests you can perform on your cat at home—but keep in mind that he might not be interested in cooperating.