Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs? Scientists Answer Age-Old Question

Cats and dogs have historically been at odds, leading to pet owners categorizing themselves as either dog or cat people. Each side argues that their favorite pet is the smartest, trying to outdo the other.

Scientists have also tangled with this issue, applying their expertise to see whether one of these animals truly triumphs over its rival.

Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs?

The ultimate answer to this is complex, as it is difficult to compare the intelligence of the two animals.

Brian Hare, the founder and director of Duke University's Canine Cognition Center, put it like this in an interview with PBS: "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."

However, various studies have concluded that, overall, cats are not smarter than dogs.

One study often cited is that of neurologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, who has spent nearly 15 years analyzing cognitive function in humans and animals. One such experiment she performed involved counting the neurons in the cortexes of a cat, golden retriever and a mixed-breed small dog.

The cerebral cortex of the brain is involved in many higher level processes, including thought, association and memory.

The cortexes of dead animals were liquified in order to measure the number of suspended nuclei from neuron cells. This meant researchers could estimate the number of neurons present.

An estimate of the number of neurons in the average huuman cortex is 16 billion, according to Herculano-Houzel's findings. Her research found the dogs had 429 million and 623 million neurons for the mixed breed and golden retriever respectively, while the cat had 250 million neurons in their cerebral cortexes.

She told PBS: "Neurons are the basic information processing units. The more units you find in the brain, the more cognitively capable the animal is.

"We definitely need more research on this topic before we can definitively state how meaningful brain size is as a measure of intelligence across different animal groups.

"It's not a larger body that explains the number of neurons you have. You can have animals with similar-sized brains, and they have completely different numbers of neurons."

Adding to this evidence of dogs' superior brainpower, a study in 2008 showed cats are not as good at counting or identifying quantities compared to dogs and fish.

It may be the case that dogs are more cognitively capable than cats, however there are explanations as to why this might be, and other measures which could suggest cats have the edge.

Another study, this time in 2006 at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, showed cats are able to follow puzzles, and stick at it until they get it right, unlike dogs who will seek help from their owners.

A study at Oxford University in the U.K. suggested dogs are more intelligent due to their sociability, pet food company Purina suggested this may be due to cats having been domesticated for a shorter length of time than dogs.

According to the New York Times, the Belgian Society to the Elevation of the Domestic Cat even attempted an experiment to see if cats could be used to send messages between towns in the late 19th century.

The fastest cat got to their destination in five hours, and all of the 37 cats made it back within 24 hours, showing cats are clearly not too far behind in the intelligence game.

The Final Verdict

Ultimately, it is impossible to settle on one side or another, as there are extenuating factors to intelligence.

As dogs have been domesticated for longer, they have been able to adapt to the ways of humans and thus, if we measure their intelligence by sociability or ability to follow rules, they are far ahead of cats.

However, cats have fewer neurons in their cortexes, regardless of size, meaning they will naturally be less cognitively capable.

If looking at the data, dogs have the upper hand, but there are clearly some tests where cats could be said to win the day, despite dogs having a domestic advantage.

File photo of a dog and cat
File photo of a dog and cat together. Scientists answer which of the two animals are the most intelligent. Getty Images

Correction 6/28/21, 3:30 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correctly state the number of neurons in the human cerebral cortex.