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Who’s Smarter: Cats or Dogs?

Research finds dogs are smarter than cats. Here's why that's not the full story.

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It seemed so cut and dried when last year, researchers at Vanderbilt University declared that yes, dogs were, in fact, smarter than cats. Their findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, concluded that canines had significantly more cortical neurons in the brain than felines. These “little gray cells” are largely associated with “thinking, planning, and complex behavior—all considered hallmarks of intelligence.”

Specifically, the study found that dogs have about 530 million cortical neurons compared to 250 million for cats. (For what it’s worth, humans have 16 billion). Interestingly, the analysis also revealed that raccoons are among the brainiest of animals—possessing as many cortical neurons as a dog has in a brain the size of a cat’s.

That 2018 is the Year of the Dog, according to the Chinese zodiac, seemed extra fitting. Until a few days ago, when I came across an eye-catching headline from Scientific American: "Your Dog May Not Be a Genius, After All."

The article references a recent study published in the journal Learning and Behavior, which makes exhaustive comparisons between dogs and a menagerie of other animals (including cats) to find that, while dogs are indeed unique, “there is no current case for canine exceptionalism.”

The findings include:

  • In associative learning, dogs do not exhibit any unusual advantages over other animals.
  • Dogs do have an excellent sense of smell, but similar abilities have been found in other animals, including pigs, horses, and cats.
  • Physical cognition in dogs is not unique, and their performance is about the same as wolves, cats, bottlenose dolphins, and horses.
  • In spatial tasks, dogs are not more exceptional than other animals.

Still, one area where canines do outperform felines is taste, according to the research. Unlike cats, dogs are able to respond to sweetness, thanks to their different genetic structure.

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Whereas these new findings may be like catnip to feline fanatics, they don’t necessarily prove anything—other than the fact that “facts” won't easily determine the hierarchy of animal intelligence.

Brian Hare, the founder and director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center warns of applying human-centric standards on animals:

“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.”

For example, when it comes to hunting abilities, cats are the most skilled, dogs are in the middle, and humans at the low end. But if the three groups were tested on math, then humans outrank both dogs and cats.

One simple explanation as to why academia may tend to regard dogs as smarter than cats may be that they are just studied more often. In fact, cats are rarely studied, generally because they are regarded as uncooperative test subjects—the term “herding cats” exists for a reason. Still, Kristyn Vitale Shreve, a cat researcher at Oregon State University, suggests that the problem isn’t the cats, themselves. Rather, it’s the methodology: “A lot of people try to apply tests created for dogs or other species then apply them to cats.”

As someone who loves and has owned both cats and dogs, it’s impossible to say which of my pets are “smarter”—especially when I (wrongly) judge them through a human lens. On one hand, my old dog could intuitively skulk away from the scene of the crime, yet would hungrily devour the cat’s poop, while ignoring her perfectly good bowl of dog food. Meanwhile, my cats have brilliantly trained me to cater to their every whim, yet after four years, they still believe the vacuum cleaner is out to destroy them.

One has to wonder, though, what do these animals think of us and our own intelligence?

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