When someone says “my pet is really smart,” what animal comes to your mind first? Don’t think it over too much, we all have the same initial reaction. Most people will think of dogs, and with good reason. However, not too many people will think of cats as intelligent. So, How Smart Is the Average House Cat?
When I was a kid, my parents would often say “cats are cute, but dogs are smart and loyal.” And while I disagree with that statement today, I can definitely understand why they would classify these two animal species as such. Of course, cats are smart animals, there’s no question about it. But how smart is the average house cat?
Comparing Cats to Dogs
Before I move on to the topic of smart cats, I need to address the feline-canine intelligence comparison. As I stated earlier, people have a good reason for thinking that dogs are smarter. Not only will they learn a lot of different tricks, but they’ll be there for you emotionally, which is why doctors often recommend them as therapy animals.
But it goes beyond that. After all, dogs are used in military and law enforcement, sniffing out dangerous chemicals and substances. In addition, seeing-eye dogs help the blind with their day-to-day life and guard dogs stave off intruders. Some dogs can even sniff out truffles in case we don’t have a pig around.
So, dogs are smart, these traits all show it. But do they necessarily make dogs smarter than cats in general? Well, I’d have to say no.
Asking how smart is the average house cat when juxtaposed to a dog is a bit unfair. Comparing cats and dogs in terms of behavior and growth is almost as pointless as “comparing apples and oranges.” Most cat breeds can’t learn the same tricks as dogs (a Savannah cat is a rare exception to this rule).
There are no seeing-eye cats or military-grade cat drug sniffers. But then again, there shouldn’t be. In order for a dog to do all of these amazing things, we need to train it first. Luckily, dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years and we seem to have their utmost trust.
That’s not the case with cats. A typical household kitty is far more independent and doesn’t take orders well. Of course, it will bond to me if I feed it regularly and give it a home, but it’s almost impossible for it to behave as loyally as a dog. So, in answering how smart is the average house cat question, we have to think in non-canine terms of intelligence.
Does Loyalty Equal Intelligence?
The question of loyalty and intelligence is actually quite difficult to answer. I definitely don’t think that a cat has low intelligence just because it isn’t as loyal as a dog. However, some pet loyalty does play a role in how smart a cat actually is, among other factors. Let’s cover what makes cats smart a bit more below.
Scientific Consensus on How Smart Is the Average House Cat?
If I were to focus on raw science, I’d say that cats have a brain similar to other intelligent mammals, including dogs and even us humans. To be precise, a cat’s brain has a structure that is roughly 90% similar to that of a human brain. In addition, an average cat’s brain has a large cerebral cortex with around 300 million neurons.
Now, the size of the brain (and its cortex) doesn’t make an animal more or less intelligent than others. Naturally, the same goes for the number of neurons. However, despite that, neurons might still be a good indicator of knowing just how smart cats can be.
After all, a mammal’s cerebral cortex is the center of decision making and complex problem-solving. Moreover, it interprets sensory input, as well as subcortical emotional processing. In other words, anything a cat might think, feel, or sense goes through this part of the brain.
Finally, both short-term and long-term memory have their “storage” in the cortex. A cat learns by doing rather than seeing. Therefore, it will have a longer-lasting memory than a dog or any other animal with a low number of cerebral cortex neurons.
Of course, there is a problem in answering how smart is the average house cat question by way of scientific inquiry. Experts can’t seem to perform regular studies on felines because of a variety of issues. First off, a cat isn’t as obedient as a dog and it will simply refuse to participate in a study. Next, getting a cat to follow instructions is just as difficult as getting it to do anything it doesn’t want to. Finally, sometimes it’s even hard to get the cats out of their houses in the first place.
Intelligent Cat Breeds
The scientific consensus might be shaky, but there are some “educated guesses” on the smartest cat breeds. For example, if we measure intelligence based on how closely a cat interacts with us, this would be the list of the smartest breeds out there:
- Turkish Angora
- Savannah cat
- Maine Coon
- Cornish Rex
However, the key term here is “breeds.” While I do agree that these cat breeds are awesome, my focus is still on the average house cat. So, I would say that, based on my experience, any cat out there can possess “the smarts.” But we still need a way of knowing just how smart our feline actually is.
How Smart Is the Average House Cat? — Telltale Signs
The Survival Skillset
By far, the best thing any cat can do is survive. Because of how independent they are, cats can adapt to lots of different situations and survive some of the worst hardships. For example, if I were to let a dog live outside for a period of time, it will find food and shelter, sure. But it will be a lot thinner and more weather-beaten than before. Moreover, a stranger on the street will likely help the pup if it endears itself to them.
On the other hand, if I were to put a cat outside for the same number of days, it almost won’t mind the change. Cats are skilled hunters and can even scavenge when they need to. With lots of small animals around, it will probably have a full meal within the first hour outside.
So, how can I as a pet owner know that my cat is smart? Well, all I have to do is leave it alone in the house with a litter box and enough food and water. If there is no mess when I come back, my cat is definitely smart.
2. Social Ability
As I stated earlier, being social isn’t always a sign of intelligence. However, there are some elements of social interaction that can show us how smart our cats are. If I have a cat that greets me when I come home or comes into the kitchen exactly before a meal, I know that this is learned behavior. The same goes for cats who climb on beds and lie next to me, waiting for me to pet them. A cat can also answer a call by name, like dogs, but it’s notoriously difficult for them to learn that.
Speaking of “notoriously difficult to learn,” cats have a reputation that they won’t learn tricks. I stress the “won’t” here; a cat can, in fact, learn how to shake or sit. However, since they are independent animals, more often than not they simply can’t be bothered.
Naturally, lots of people dismiss this behavior as low intelligence when comparing them to dogs. When asked, ‘How smart is the average house cat?’ they simply reply ‘Well, it can’t be that smart, you can’t teach it any tricks.’ However, I’d argue that it’s the opposite. The fact that a cat doesn’t want to learn something can be a sign of high intelligence and independent thinking. Of course, the best way to train a cat is with treats. With enough encouragement, a smart cat will shake or roll on the floor on command. With even more encouragement, it might even come to me when I call its name.
Smart cats remember their feeding time, the owner’s scent, and what certain objects “mean.” For instance, when my cats get out of line, I would take a small water spray bottle. Since they would get sprayed after doing something wrong, the mere sight of the bottle gets them to stop or to run away.
In addition to these basic actions, and intelligent puss can also be quite observant. If you hide a treat under a pillow or a box while a smart cat’s watching, chances are that it will try to get it later.
5. Negative Emotions
Intelligent cats remember the details of our homes. As such, when I buy a new rug or move the food bowl somewhere else, the cat will become frustrated. That’s not pleasant, but it’s a sign that the cat remembers something and reacts to change. And as I mentioned already, a cat with a good memory is a smart cat.