Cats v dogs – which is the smartest?

It’s back to school time, but, if there was a school for cats and dogs (just imagine…) who would be top of the class? It’s a debate that’s been going on for decades. Are dogs smarter because they have more neurons in their brain and can learn to respond to commands, whereas cats generally don’t – or won’t? Or perhaps
20th September 2021

It’s back to school time, but, if there was a school for cats and dogs (just imagine...) who would be top of the class?

It’s a debate that’s been going on for decades. Are dogs smarter because they have more neurons in their brain and can learn to respond to commands, whereas cats generally don’t – or won’t? Or perhaps cats have a deeper intelligence because they choose not to respond to requests from their human and, as some may argue, have actually ‘trained’ us to do their bidding – scratching at the bedroom door at six in the morning to be let in (to have access to a warm bed and attention) and meowing (which cats only do for humans) to get their food   dished out. As Dr Kelly St Denis of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, puts it: “Dogs have masters. Cats have staff.”

Shaped by evolution to solve specific problems

Brian Hare, the founder and director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, USA, is cautious when pitting species against each other in the ‘which is smartest’ debate because intelligence is typically studied from a human-centric perspective.

He says: “Asking which species is smarter is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver. Each tool is designed for a specific problem, so of course it depends on the problem we are trying to solve. Each species has been shaped by evolution to solve the problems most critical to its survival and reproduction. Seeing a dolphin sitting in a tree looks as silly as a chimpanzee fishing in the sea. But research shows that both dolphins and chimps are geniuses in their natural habitats.”


Dogs possess about 530 million neurons in their brain cortex, while cats have about 250 million. For perspective, the human cortex contains 16 billion neurons.

Source: Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, who studies animal intelligence 

Defining intelligence depends on how you measure it

Kristyn Vitale Shreve, a cat cognition and behaviour research fellow at Oregon State University, USA, believes that it’s difficult to study intelligence using traditional behavioural studies, which typically involve on animals performing tasks or solving puzzles.

She says: “There’s this perception of cats being untrainable or maybe hard to work with. Cats display a lot of individual variation and have distinct personalities, which make it hard for researchers to understand them. A lot of what we already know about intelligence in other species falls on a gradient or a spectrum. Consider hunting abilities, for example. Cats sit on the skilled end of the spectrum, while dogs sit in the middle and humans near the low end. But if we test the three on math, humans shift toward the intelligent side while dogs and cats move away.”

In other words, it’s pretty pointless trying to compare different species with other because they’re intelligent in varying ways. Perhaps we should simply come to terms with the fact that dogs are great at being dogs and cats are great at being cats and it’s us humans that need to consider the way we measure intelligence from a different perspective.

Independence versus social connection

Anna Foster, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the US Veterinary Emergency Group, says it comes down to what you value: “When it comes to loyalty and the ‘smarts’ behind social connection and bonding, maybe dogs win. But if we're talking about hunting in the wild, cats win.” Unlike dogs, independent cats don't need their human around to have a good time, according to Foster: “The ability to think and act independently? Cats have this. They wait for you to walk away before they do stuff.”

So, while science might shed some light on the dogs versus cat intelligence debate, every devoted pet lover must surely agree that both cats and dogs are intelligent in their own way and deserve to be equally loved – regardless of how many neurons they have!

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