The Smarter Pet

Cats or dogs: who wins the intelligence test? And which test should we be trusting, anyway?

The Smarter Pet

Cats or dogs: who wins the intelligence test? And which test should we be trusting, anyway?

“Are you a cat person or a dog person?” is a normal question nowadays. I am neither. I don’t think I can stand the sound of any animals other than humans. (To be quite frank, I’m not overly fond of humans either. But being part of the Homo sapiens family, you know… you kind of have to).

‘Cats versus Dogs’ is a question that dates back to the time of Pharaohs and Romans. And it still persists, maybe with even more vigour.

With the advent of the worldwide web, this debate grew both in its size and intensity. The frustratingly enormous quantity of cat and dog videos on social media forums is clear evidence of the ever-growing rivalry between cat persons and dog persons.

Unfortunately, there is no unified measure to decide which pet is better. That’s more of subjective preference. But we sure can find out which pet is smarter; cats or dogs.


We’ll dive into empirical evidence by and by, but first, let’s take our common sense into consideration. And by common sense, I mean those funny YouTube videos with cute cats starting a fight and dogs completing obstacle courses.

Dogs are fast to learn and can respond to commands. They can be loyal pets with a very friendly nature. On the other hand, cats are cute and curious. They may not be as friendly as a dog but they are cunning as hell.

If you have a dog or cat of your own, it is only normal that you think your pet is the smartest in the world. And you will be able to come up with anecdotes and real-life events to support your claim, like the one time your cat knew that a cyclone was about to strike or the way your dog identified your long lost friend. Like most of the times, our common sense leaves us as baffled and confused as before.

So, it is time we check out what scientists have to say. But how do we test which is smarter? Is there an IQ test developed for other animals? Should we take a look at their brains? Or can an array of experiments provide us with a solid answer?

Well, researchers have tried all these methods.


To start with, let us look at brain size. Dogs have bigger brains as compared to cats. The latter’s brains account for 0.9% of their body mass, whereas the dogs’ brains make up 1.2%. More interestingly, dog brains are constantly increasing in size, whereas cat brains have remained the same in size since at least 8000 years ago.

That doesn’t conclusively prove dogs are smarter. After all, elephants have much bigger brains than humans, but it’s still humans who make elephants dress up for festivals and work in mills and not the other way around. However, the number of neural connections might throw light on the “intellectual superiority” of a species.

As you might have guessed, humans have more neurons in their cerebral cortex than any other animal in the world. So to put an end to the dog/cat debate, a group of researchers in England took the cortices of dogs and cats, ground them into a soup and started counting the nuclei. At the end of a tiresome counting session, they figured out that dogs have over twice as many neurons as cats do.

To be more specific, dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons and cats have only 250 million of them. This means that dogs have the potential for more complex and flexible behaviour than cats.


Rather than peeking inside the brain, there have been other researchers who relied upon experiments and cognitive tasks instead. These studies took into consideration various aspects of intelligence like sensory cognition, physical cognition, spatial cognition and self-awareness.

If you have a cat or dog, you might be able to conduct some of these tests yourself. One easy emotional-intelligence test is to take your pet into a room with a foreign, slightly scary object — say, a noisy vacuum-cleaner or a disconnected exhaust fan. Sit calmly on the floor next to the object and make friends with it, by which I mean, pat it in a friendly manner or speak in soothing tones. If your pet is tuned to your emotions, it’ll pick up on your calmness, and begin to calm down too.

Then there’s the famous finger-pointing test. Keep two bowls or baskets overturned. One of them will have food underneath, and the other won’t. If you point out the correct one, does the pet know to follow your finger?


The experiments had mixed results. In tasks such as “pull the string to release food”, cats outperformed dogs. But in  tasks such “where did the ball roll?”, involving senses like taste and smell, dogs had the upper-hand (or upper-leg if you will).

The sensory intellect of dogs has long been appreciated and accepted. That is why dogs are admitted into a bomb squad and cats aren’t invited for the interviews. Some researchers believe dogs can sense the emotional and physical status of another dog by smelling its poop; kind of a disgusting superpower. Not to be left behind, cats can hear sounds up to 65,000 hertz, which means they can hear electric current. They can see remarkably far too, and while they find it difficult to see objects at close range, they make up for it with tricks like swiping at water to find out where the surface is.

Another interesting study showed that both dogs and cats can solve simple puzzles to get food. However, and most crucially: when the tasks became impossible, the cats kept trying but the dogs looked to humans for help.


You might have observed this in real life. When met with a challenging situation, dogs often call their fellow dogs for help, whereas cats either try harder or flee. This social behaviour in dogs is one of the defining features of an intellectual being.

It goes further. In some experiments including an “unsolvable” food puzzle — where the food was stuck inside a container in such a way that dogs wouldn’t be able to take it out — then they’d consistently glance at a nearby human bystander to ask for help. They even learnt to distinguish between “experienced” human bystanders, who knew how to get the food out for them, and “inexperienced” ones who were (or pretended to be) unable to take the food out.

In another experiment, when humans “accidentally” dropped something, dogs would be willing to help them — although most didn’t know what the problem was or how exactly to help. About one in ten proactively went and picked up the fallen object.

It was possibly because of their longer interaction with humans that dogs got their social behaviour. Dogs were domesticated for at least 20,000 years earlier than cats. This close association with humans actually helped Canis domesticus (what nerds call dogs) become a smarter species.


Cats are more ‘independent’, ‘solitary’ beings, who doesn’t crave attention as much as dogs or become eager to pick a ball if thrown. However, if you’re gonna go with ‘cats are dumb’, that is wrong. There are quite a lot of qualities that cats possess, which equip them to lead a fulfilling life.

Cats are, as mentioned before, more cunning when it comes to hunting for food — possibly the result of years of solitary adventures. According to a 2013 study published in *Biological Conservation, domesticated house cats are responsible for the deaths of 2.9 billion rodents and birds every year*. Dogs, on the other hand, opt for assistance when met with a demanding situation rather than try to overcome the hurdle on their own. Which is usually a very smart move, but there are always situations when it might not be an option — in a crisis, would you rather work hard to get meals yourself, or sit at home and hope someone brings them for you?

Domesticated cats live longer as compared to dogs, approximately 10–15 years, which gives them more time to build on their behaviour. Cats, to a greater degree than dogs, can gradually become smarter than they were to start with. (They’re also more uncooperative when scientists try to impose studies on them, which could arguably be a pretty smart move).


Well, in conclusion, on average, and  no offence intended, dogs are smarter than cats.

Again, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily better pets. If I were given a choice, I’d go with a cat rather than a dog. I’d like a cute cuddly cat which doesn’t challenge my intellectual superiority and not a clingy canine with a strong sense of smell.

But, perhaps, that tells you more about my intelligence than theirs.

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