Dog and cat owners make many assumptions about the intelligence of their four-footed companions. Of course, we all like to imagine that our Fido or Felix is the smartest animal that ever catches a ball or falls on it. So can we settle the age-old debate? Which species is smarter: dogs or cats?
It turns out the answer isn’t as simple as animal lovers might like.
“Canine cognitive researchers do not study ‘intelligence’ in itself; we look at different aspects of cognition “, Alexandra Horowitz, Senior Research Fellow who specializes in dog cognition at Barnard College in New York and author of” Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know “(Scribner, 2010) Live Science said in an email.
Related: Why do dogs and cats run around in random bursts of speed?
Indeed, Horowitz questions the human habit of comparing intelligence between different species.
“In its simplest form, cats are smart about things cats need to do and dogs are smart about dog things,” she said. “I don’t think there is any point in talking about relative ‘smarts’ of species.”
Brian Hare, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, agreed with this assessment.
“Asking whether a dog is smarter than a cat is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver – it depends on what it’s designed for,” he told Live Science in an email.
That’s not to say that animal behaviorists haven’t tried to measure the intelligence of dogs and cats – or more precisely, cognitive abilities beyond what is needed to sustain life.
Kristyn Vitale, assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College in Maine, said that animal intelligence is typically divided into three broad domains: problem-solving skills, conceptualization (the ability to build general concepts from specific concrete experiences), and social intelligence.
Vitale is primarily concerned with cats, and her current focus on the inner workings of cats revolves around social intelligence. Often stereotyped as aloof and disinterested in people, cats actually display high levels of social intelligence, “often on the same level as dogs,” she told Live Science in an email.
For example, studies show that cats can distinguish between their names and similar-sounding words, and that they prefer human interactions to food, toys, and scents. Human attention makes cats a difference: A 2019 study published in the journal Behavioral Processes found that when a person paid attention to a cat, the cat responded by spending more time with that person.
In one of the rare studies that directly compared cats and dogs, the researchers found no significant difference between the species’ ability to find hidden food based on a human’s cues. However, the researchers found that “when compared to dogs, cats lacked some components of attention-grabbing behavior.” (Pet owners who have watched a dog beg at its food bowl while a cat walked away know exactly what the researchers observed.)
Related: How much do cats and dogs remember?
(Image credit: Jessica Harms via Getty Images)
Then there is the brain size. A common notion is that brain size dictates relative intelligence, and if it always did, dogs would appear to get the upper hand.
Hare said he and the University of Arizona anthropologist Evan MacLean had recruited more than 50 researchers around the world to apply a test they developed to 550 animal species, including “birds, monkeys, dogs, lemurs and elephants,” said he.
The idea was to test a cognitive trait, self-control, or what researchers call “inhibitory control” across species. Her test, reported in a 2014 article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was the animal version of Stanford University’s famous 1972 study that tested children ages 3 to 5 for their ability to delay eating a marshmallow.
The cross-species study showed that “the larger an animal’s brain, the more self-control it showed in our marshmallow test on animals,” said Hare. The ability to control oneself is one of the signs of higher cognitive function.
But there’s a catch: cats weren’t included in the test. So while we can speculate how they might have done based on their brain size, we don’t know for sure.
Another thing to keep in mind with this type of intelligence assessment is that we may treat dogs and cats differently, Vitale said.
“Dogs, for example, are often well socialized and take puppy classes, drive cars and go to dog parks,” she said. “Cat owners give their cats less of these socialization and training opportunities.”
So who will ultimately win? Taking away can consist of appreciating your pet’s particular type of intelligence, especially the social intelligence that makes them adorable companions.
Originally published on Live Science.