As long as people have shared their homes with pets, dog and cat lovers have
debated which animal is more intelligent. Canine enthusiasts tout that dogs have
been trained and bred for thousands of years to herd, hunt, assist, protect,
perform tricks and obey verbal commands. Cat aficionados, on the other hand, say
that cats are simply too smart to do the sort of tricks that dogs eagerly
perform. Whereas dogs have been bred for utility, cats have been bred mostly for
appearance, leading many to believe that dogs have superior intellectual
capabilities. But, really, is it feasible to accurately compare the intelligence
of these two species?
Despite their similarities, cats and dogs are very different animals. Dogs
are social animals, are motivated by a hierarchical, pack-oriented instinct.
They will perform purely for praise, especially from whomever they consider
their pack leader. Conversely, cats are highly specialized carnivores who
generally lead solitary lives in the wild. In domestic settings, they are not
motivated by social status. Most are not even motivated by food. But, why is
In the wild, if obtaining a particular source of food is too much work, cats
will generally cut their losses and go in search of easier prey. Whereas wild
dog packs will cooperatively pursue prey for miles, a wild cat tends to conserve
energy, lying in wait to ambush prey. The untrained observer may interpret this
as laziness or a lack of motivation, however animal behaviorists know that this
represents a brilliant evolutionary adaptation … one that increases a cat’s
chances of survival in the wild.
How intelligence is expressed is also largely determined by an animal’s
sensory organs and motor abilities. Cats perceive the world quite differently
than humans. For instance, they are unable to distinguish between red, orange,
yellow and green. They have 20/80 vision, which means they only have good visual
acuity at distances of less than 20 feet, and they see best in low light
conditions ideal for hunting and stalking prey at dusk. Their sense of smell is
far better than a human but much less sensitive than a dog’s. Cats have
incredible hearing and can hear ultrasonic noises made by rats and mice. You may
also be surprised to know that cats are quite dexterous compared to dogs, able
to seize and manipulate objects surprisingly well with their paws.
If you’re interested in trying to gauge your kitty’s IQ, hide a bit of food
under a towel and see how quickly the cat finds its prey. However, don’t be
surprised if your cat would rather play with the towel than find the food!
When trying to assess feline intelligence, we humans would benefit from a
paradigm shift. Since we tend to judge intelligence by comparing cats to
ourselves, or how easily cats understand and obey human cues, we are missing out
on the brilliant diversity, amazing adaptability and creative capabilities of
the most popular pet in America.
I encourage you to celebrate how cats are unique, and do your best to see the
world through your cat’s eyes.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals.
Dr. Jane Bicks
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