Which Are Smarter, Cats or Dogs?
by Martha Brockenbrough
Martha Brockenbrough

In the cartoon world, dogs and cats are natural enemies.  In that two-dimensional universe, cats are smarter than dogs.  And the humans all have three fingers and a thumb.

You can't use the cartoon world to determine which are smarter, cats or dogs.  In my house, which is inhabited by two cats and a dog, I would have to say that the dog is the smarter creature.

Even though she sometimes tries to walk through doors that are only open a crack, therefore shutting them on her head, my dog clearly demonstrates her superior intelligence by following me everywhere I go and generally making me feel like the center of the universe.  That's a smart thing to do because it guarantees many treats and lots of affection.

The cats pretty much ignore me except when they're hungry.  The male cat has, however, trained my husband to let him out every morning at the brutal hour of 5 AM, which means the cat--at least in some ways--is smarter than my husband.

I know my household is not a science lab.  The intellectual pecking order we have established won't necessarily hold up against the rigors of scientific inquiry.

It's an important question, though, one that Cat People and Dog People have debated forever. If you're a Cat Person, you know that cats are smarter because they're independent and clean, and they have an uncanny sense of where they are and how to get home.  If you're a Dog Person, you know that dogs are smarter because they're easier to train. In fact, dogs are so smart they sometimes even wear police badges and perform important jobs for people with disabilities, among other things.

Is one of our favorite pets smarter than the other?  Can we finally put this question to rest?  I think I have an answer.  But we need to get a bunch of other stuff straight first.

What is intelligence?

You'd think defining intelligence would be easy.  But it's not, not even with humans.

Early human intelligence tests, performed in the late 1800s, tried to link smarts with body proportions, reaction time, and sensitivity to smells, sounds, weights, and other stimuli.  The problem was that the test results didn't correlate with how well a subject performed in school.  In hindsight, it seems goofy to believe that someone with a good sense of smell would be smarter.  But that just shows how difficult it has been to come up with a good way of measuring intelligence.

Later intelligence tests focused on practical knowledge, memory, reasoning, vocabulary, and problem solving.  These tests turned out to be better predictors of academic success.

They still weren't perfect, however, because they focus mainly on how well someone will do in school--and that's only one arena for achievement.  Think for a minute about the smartest people you know.  What makes them smart?  That they know a lot of words?  That they're good at math?  That they can fix toasters and program VCRs?

All of these things represent different types of intelligence.  Some people might have some types of smarts, but lack others.  And whether or not we recognize something as intelligence has a lot to do with what we value or what we're seeking.

For example, let's look at the old stereotype of the dumb athlete.  (It's a lame stereotype, I know. There are plenty of people who display talent on playing fields and in the classroom.)  But, just as there are people who do well in school but can't shoot a basket, there are others who are more successful on the sports field than in class.  So why do we have the expression "dumb jock" but no counterpart for someone who is a nonathletic scholar?  The term "nerd" comes close, but a nerd can be athletic.  (I should know--I consider myself a nerd, yet I earned many varsity letters in high school.)  The reason we have the dumb jock putdown is because in school, academic intelligence counts for more than athletic intelligence.

Similarly, in the cat and dog debate, people will generally define intelligence as what they value.  Do they want a fastidious pet?  Then a cat is probably going to seem "smarter," because cats--unlike dogs--do not roll around in dead fish and then come bounding in the house to show off their glorious odor.  Or, perhaps they want a pet that obeys voice commands?  Even though cats can be trained to use toilets (not just litter boxes), dogs are easier to train, and therefore will likely be considered more intelligent creatures.

In order to become less biased about measuring intelligence, we have to know more about how cats and dogs think.

How cats think

Some of my favorite reading about the world of the cat is by the late Roger Caras, who wrote more than five dozen books on animals and served as president of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  He also hosted the Westminster Dog Show, so he can't be described as biased.

In A Cat is Watching, Caras says that cats and dogs are probably equally intelligent.  (Other experts disagree with this, but I'll get to that later.)

Cats and humans have similar brains.  They're so similar, in fact, that more cats have been used for neurological studies than any other animal.  The big difference is that human brains have a neocortex and cat brains do not.  The neocortex functions as our center for speech and memory associations.  Apart from that, however, our more primitive underlying brain structures are just about the same.

Cats' brains are wired to be sensory, Caras writes.  So what does that mean?  Caras defines a sense as something that alerts a cat to changes in its environment--changes that will ideally be handled so that the cat comes out on top.  They rely on whiskers and noses and other tools to feel and perceive the world around them.  Most of all, they observe and respond.

Cats are almost mystical in their ability to perceive the world.  You've probably heard the folk wisdom that cats always land on their feet, and that they always find their way home.  Although "always" is a risky word to use, it is true that cats are graceful.  Unlike seeing-eye dogs, cats can't lead a blind person across the street. But they often demonstrate an uncanny talent for navigation.

When I was about six years old, a black stray cat took a liking to our little gray cat, Cloudy.  We called him The Yowl, because he would howl love songs outside our windows at night.  After a litter of unplanned kittens arrived, my parents took The Yowl to some farmland 20 miles away, crossing a freeway to get there.  And yet, a few weeks later, the cat came back.  He kept coming back, even after we had Cloudy spayed.

So, how did The Yowl do this?  Caras believes cats have sun-based direction finders--solar global positioning systems, if you will.  And it's not just that they scan the horizon for the sun's angle--it's also possible, Caras writes, that cats are absorbing data that we can't absorb ourselves and therefore don't know to measure.

So, while some people would say, "If we can't measure it, it doesn't exist," I share Caras's fascination with the unknown.  And if some cats are better at using this mysterious information than others, why couldn't that be a form of intelligence?

How dogs think

Probably the best-known expert on the intelligence of dogs is Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of several books about dogs.

In The Intelligence of Dogs, Coren outlines three types of smarts that can be measured: instinctive, adaptive, and working.  Instinctive intelligence describes what dogs are genetically designed to do.  This is why some can herd sheep and others are good at retrieving tennis balls.  Adaptive intelligence describes how well dogs can figure out what's going on around them--for example, how quickly they can find a hidden treat.  Working intelligence describes how quickly they learn commands.

The book even contains instructions for measuring your dog's smarts.  Even so, says Coren, the tests are biased against the dogs--they're only testing how well dogs understand us, not how well they understand each other.

Dogs, like humans, are social animals.  They think in terms of how they relate to others. Domestic cats are not pack animals, which is why people laugh when someone trots out the old expression, "It was like herding cats!"  This is also why many people, Coren included, make a strong case for dogs being smarter, paws down.

"The reason is very simple," he says.  "If you have two animals that are roughly at the same evolutionary level and roughly the same [classification]--cats and dogs are both carnivores--the one that has the more complex social structure is almost always brighter."

Pack animals have to read signals and anticipate the effect of their actions.  It's kind of like being a chess player.  If you look at it in human developmental terms, a dog is about equivalent to a human two-year-old, which means it knows about 260 words or signals.  The average cat, meanwhile, is more like an 18-month-old, which means it knows about 50 words. The more words a creature knows and the better it's able to communicate, the more it is apt to succeed in a social environment.

It's not that cats are too regal to perform tricks or obey commands, Coren says.  It's that they don't understand how to do them.  They just aren't able to learn language and read social cues as well as dogs.

Dogs, on the other hand, are champs at it.  Maybe this is why dogs joined human families about 14,000 years ago, while cats were first domesticated 4,500 years ago.  Dogs were quicker to figure out how to hop on board the human gravy train. In any case, this is why my dog always knows when she's going for a walk, even without my using the word--there's some signal I'm giving off without even knowing it.

This isn't to say that dogs are perfect at reading the body language of all species.  In fact, in How to Speak Dog, Coren explains that this is one reason why cats and dogs often don't get along. A frightened or submissive dog will roll over, exposing its stomach.  A cat, on the other hand, will roll on to its back when killing prey, or defending itself with its powerful hind legs.  So, a dog might look at a cat on its back and think, "Hey. I won.  Better go sniff and make peace."  The cat, meanwhile, is thinking, "I'll disembowel Fifi if it's the last thing I do."

Despite this, dogs' skill at language and communication with humans has enabled them to not only be companions, but also to perform crucial jobs. In addition to helping police officers and people with disabilities, some dogs can even detect cancer with their noses.

Despite the pleasure they provide as pets and the rodents they dispatch for us, there's no evidence that cats can do anything like this.  So, if intelligence is a measure of the complexity of a task an animal can perform, then dogs really do take first prize.

Someday, when we understand more of the things we can't measure, the answer to the Who's smarter? question might be different.  Or maybe we'll just stop asking the question, because the important thing already is clear: Cats and dogs both think.

And until we're able to catch tennis balls in our mouths and kill mice with our bare hands, we should be impressed with them both.

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