How Smart Are Cats? Instinct and Intelligence In Cats
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley October 02, 2019
It is well known that dogs are highly intelligent, intuitive, and trainable animals. They are incorporated into the lives of humans in many different and complex ways. Sometimes in comparison to dogs, cats get a bad reputation for being aloof, cold, and stubborn, but the truth is that cats are also highly intelligent, intuitive, and trainable. Cats and dogs come from two different lineages of animals that needed different skills to survive, and the process of domestication for each was very different. As a result, dogs and cats have different learning styles and respond differently to people. This leads to the bad reputation cats have for not being very intelligent. Here we will discuss what is known about cat intelligence and how you can incorporate their intelligence into your everyday interactions with your feline friend.
How Intelligent Are Cats?
It is difficult to put cats in a ranked list with other animals based on intelligence because comparing animal intelligence across species is difficult. Each species is uniquely adapted for particular environments and skills, which means every species of animal is considered intelligent in their own right (AC). Cats were adapted for hunting small prey items and more recently for social relationships with other cats and with humans. These adaptations gave rise to a number of cognitive abilities which we will discuss further.
What Is Animal Intelligence?
The study of animal intelligence is closely linked to studies of animal cognition. Animal cognition is defined as “all ways in which animals take in information through the senses, process, retain, and decide to act on it” (Shettleworth 2001, p. 277). In other words, researchers investigating animal intelligence are trying to understand the mental capacities of animals (AC). Researchers use a variety of tests to measure animal cognition or intelligence. In these tests, the animals typically have to solve certain tasks that are meant to measure a certain cognitive ability.
For example, one such test is known as the mirror test. In the mirror test, researchers are looking to measure self-awareness in animals (whether they recognize the animal in the mirror as themselves or think it is another animal). Self-recognition is considered to be a higher order cognitive ability. Human babies cannot solve this task until they are about one and a half years old. To date, only nine animals besides humans have also solved this task. Cats are not one of them. The nine animals that have solved it are elephants, bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, orcas, magpies, and ants (AC).
In What Ways Are Cats Intelligent?
According to a review paper on cat cognition by Vitale Shreve and Udell (2015) the main focus of cat cognition has been on cognitive skills such as sensory perception, object permanence and working memory, physical causality, quantity and time discrimination, social cognition, sensitivity to human cues, voice recognition and vocal communication, social attachment, and personality. Compared to dogs, much fewer studies have explored cat cognition. This means that there is still a lot left to learn about cat intelligence.
Here are some of the findings Vitale Shreve and Udell (2015) found in the literature:
Cats are adapted to hunt in low light conditions so their senses are much different than humans and dogs. Cat sensory perception has been an area of interest for many researchers, particularly how early life experiences may alter their sensory perception. Researchers are also interested to learn how cats use their senses to relate to their physical and social environment.
- Object permanence and memory
Object permanence is the ability to recognize that when an object disappears from sight, it still exists. Because cats are adapted as skilled hunters, they do indeed have this ability. Working memory is the ability to hold information temporarily and use it to make a decision, and cats do seem to have a working memory of at least a minute. Cats also appear to have long-term memory.
- Physical causality
Cats are tested on their ability to understand cause and effect and on how well they apply learned knowledge to new situations through a string-pulling test. Cats are taught to pull a string in order to get a food reward, then the test gets increasingly complicated to allow researchers to learn if cats have physical causality. Cats had a hard time with this task when there were two or more strings to pull.
- Quantity and time discrimination
Studies on cat cognition have shown that cats appear to understand quantity and can tell time. Those of us with cats will know for sure that cats can tell time. As soon as the clock hits dinner time, they are right there to remind you.
- Social cognition
We may think of cats as solitary creatures, but domestic cats are actually quite social. Therefore, they need to understand social cues and communication both with other cats and with humans. Cats that are well-socialized with other cats and humans develop strong social skills and communicate in a variety of ways, many of which we do not fully understand.
- Sensitivity to human cues
When compared to dogs on this cognitive ability, it is assumed that cats are much less sensitive to human cues. Research does suggest, however, that cats will look to humans to obtain information about a resource or their environment and are cued into our moods. If you are having a particularly bad day, you may find that your cat will come comfort you or maybe even avoid you if they notice you are angry.
- Voice recognition and vocal communication
Researchers were curious whether cats were able to recognize individual human voices and whether or not they would show any behavioral response to their owner’s voice over a stranger’s. It was found that cats do indeed respond to their owner’s voice over a stranger’s by showing subtle behavioral changes. Another cognitive ability that cats have is the ability to vocally communicate. Cats have a wide repertoire of vocal sounds they use to communicate such as meows, purrs, and hisses. Cats will use vocal communication in interactions with other cats and humans.
Cats have been living alongside humans for many years and have become one of our favorite companions. Researchers were curious about whether cats show strong social bonds with their owners in the form of attachment behavior. Cats do show different social behaviors with their owner compared to a stranger. More recent research by Vitale Shreve and colleagues (2019) has shown that cats even show attachment behavior similar to human children to their parents and even have distinct attachment styles based on the strength of the bond with their human.
Personality in animals is defined as individual differences that are consistent over time and across contexts. Cat parents have always known that cats show distinct personalities, such as how bold, shy, timid, friendly, confident, or nervous they are. Science has agreed with this, showing that cats do have distinct, consistent personality types.
How Do I Test My Cat’s Intelligence?
Cognitive tasks not only teach scientists about our cats and how their brains work, they are also a great source of mental enrichment. Many cognitive tests can be done at home. Moreover, scientists even ask cat parents to participate in cognitive tasks at home and send them videos to analyze. This is known as citizen science and is helpful in getting lots of data on cats when they are in a comfortable environment. One such project asked participants to simply record a video of themselves playing with their cats.
Citizen science projects typically only happen at certain times and are offered by many different institutions. Following groups such as OVC Companion Animal Behaviour and Welfare Lab, Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare, Pet Behaviour Science, Companion Animal Psychology, and Fundamentally Feline just to name a few can help clue you in to these projects and their results. You can also visit CitizenScience.org for more projects.
If you want to play mental games at home with your cat, here are some options:
- Hide and seek
Take your cat’s favorite toy or treats and hide it under a cardboard box or bowl. Then let your cat work to get it out.
- Hide and seek shuffle
Hide a treat under one cup and then shuffle it with 2-3 other empty cups. Let your cat figure out where the treat is.
- Scavenger hunt
- Puzzle feeders
There are a number of puzzle feeders designed specifically for cats. These are great for getting your cat to use their brain to get food.
If you need more ideas, look online! Humans are very creative and have come up with some great ways to test their cats’ intelligence.
With this information, it is easy to see that cats are highly intelligent. While they may not act and think like a dog, they have a different set of cognitive skills that contribute to their intelligence. These skills were developed through careful selection over many years of evolution. Cognitive skills develop in animals based on their environment and what they need to do to survive. Our domestic dogs developed skills to bond with humans and read our behavior to obtain food and protection. Cats did not need to develop this skill to survive, and therefore they do not display their intelligence in the way dogs do. However, cats are plenty smart and there are a variety of ways for you to test their intelligence and provide mental stimulation and enrichment.
Animal Cognition (AC). Accessed September 24, 2019.
Cats International (CI). The intelligent cat. Accessed September 24, 2019.
Shettleworth, S.J. 2001. Animal cognition and animal behaviour. Animal Behaviour 61:277–286.
Vitale Shreve, K.R., and M.A.R. Udell. 2015. What’s inside your cat’s head? A review of cat
(Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future. Animal Cognition 18(6):1195-1206.
Vitale Shreve, K.R., Behnke, A.C., and M.A.R. Udell. 2019. Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. Current Biology 29(18):R864-R865.