Your Cat May Be Smarter Than You Think

Your Cat May Be Smarter Than You Think

Green eyed cat

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 that?

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  Dr. Jane Bicks


Perfiliev, S, L G Pettersson and A Lundberg. "Control of Claw Movements in Cats." Neuroscience Research 31 (1998): 337- 342.

Martin, Paul, and Patrick Bateson. "Behavioural Development in the Cat" In The Domestic Cat: The Biology of Its Behaviour, edited by Dennis C Turner and Patrick Bateson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1988).

Doré, François Y. "Search Behaviour of Cats (Felis catus) in an Invisible Displacement Test: Cognition and Experience" Canadian Journal of Psychology 44 (1990): 359 - 370.

Collier, George, Deanne F Johnson, and Cynthia Morgan. "Meal Patterns of Cats Encountering Variable Food Procurement Costs" Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaviour 67 (1997): 303 - 310.

Blake, Randolph, and William Martens. "Critical Bands in Cat Spatial Vision." Journal of Physiology 314 (1981): 175 - 87.

Bravo, M, R Blake and S Morrison "Cats See Subjective Contours" Vision Research 28 (1988): 861-865

Comments (19) -

  • Susan Macarthur

    1/28/2015 4:18:28 AM |

    Wonderful article, Dr Jane. I am going to share it with my kitten buyers.

  • Jenni Schaffer

    1/28/2015 8:27:14 AM |

    Cats Rule!  Love mine -- but I love my sister's dogs too.  Great article!

  • cheryl

    1/28/2015 11:25:56 AM |

    I was never a cat person per say, however last May someone dropped an extremely wild kitten on our property, probably 5 weeks old,  and she ended up in the motor compartment of our car. I was to go to the gym that morning but wasn't feeling well, so I didn't go, (an omen?)  My husband was outside in a lawn chair reading the newspaper which he HAS NEVER DONE in the morning. Took us an hour and half to get her out of the motor compartment. I decided the safest place to keep her would be in our dogs huge kennel.  She hated it, but that's where she stayed for several hours, til we could figure out what we were going to do.  I am here to tell you that this Kitten, now 8 months old, is one of the smartest and most personable cats I have ever known and we have had  4 cats in my married life.  This kitten was so afraid and skittish I didn't think she was ever going to be tamed. I kept her in our spare bedroom, which took her 3 weeks before she would even venture out, in her kennel at night, so she wouldn't get into something she shouldn't. I have absolutely fell in love with this calico and, I think, she has fell in love with me.  She is such a strange but yet personable cat with me that we read each others minds and I spoil her rotten.  We have play time (which she knows when I tell her, "let's play" she knows.) We play with a race car track and she promptly chases the cars, lays on the track and acts crazy.  We rough house, she knows when I put my fleece jacket on, it's time to bring it on.  She will "rabbit kick," bite(she opens her mouth but doesn't bite hard at all)  and has learned to be easy and claws in!!! She follows me around the house, sleeps behind me on the back of the couch when I am sitting on the couch. If I am on the floor, that's where she is too. We absolutely have some kind of physic with each other and can almost read each others mind. She has brought me so many hours of laughter and fun times. I believe that cats are highly intelligent and since I am retired, I have the time to devote, work with her,  and we enjoy each other immensely!  I have a sheltie, one of the most intelligent dogs there is, and I swear this cat is just as intelligent as my sheltie is scary smart.  

  • diane

    1/29/2015 1:39:29 PM |

    I wondered why my cat seems to be able to hear things that I can't hear, or can barely hear.  Now I know!  Thanks for all the info.

  • Dr. Terri Gibson

    2/2/2015 5:31:41 PM |

    Great article Dr. Jane!  I enjoyed reading it!  Will share it with my clients who own cats.

  • Robin

    2/4/2015 3:00:26 AM |

    Great information!

  • Regina Saunders

    2/4/2015 4:23:23 AM |

    Great article Dr. Jane!  We have two cats.  Tagg will hunt and catch mice.  Fluffy will wait until the right moment, pounce on Tagg and steal his catch!  Pretty smart!

  • Donna Vincent

    2/10/2015 12:49:01 PM |

    Great article.  Shared on my FB business page for all the kitty parents.

  • Janet

    2/10/2015 1:02:52 PM |

    Great article as always Dr. Jane.  I always learn something from your posts!

  • Stacey

    2/10/2015 1:04:08 PM |

    Wow, this makes a lot of sense.  I understand my cat better, even though he was raised with dogs and thinks he is one.  He still is a cat with great abilities.  Thank you for pointing out why and how they are different and unique.

  • Thomas Schumm

    2/10/2015 1:06:32 PM |

    We have had so many rescue dogs and cats in our home over the years, and we believe that both cats and dogs are not only highly intelligent, but are deeply individual and emotional. It is really difficult to compare dogs and cats, because their intelligence is on different planes. I can say that there are smart and  not so smart dogs, and smart and not so smart cats, but every one endears him or her self to us.

  • Jane

    2/10/2015 1:19:44 PM |

    Good article.  I've had cats and dogs all my life.  It's nice to get the inside info on why they do what they do.  Thanks, can't wait for your next article.

  • David MInzel

    2/11/2015 6:52:24 AM |

    What a perfect article Dr. Jane!  I can apply this to my work with cats and behavior assessment at the shelter I work at, thanks!

  • Gail Venegas

    2/13/2015 4:54:07 AM |

    Thanks Dr. Jane for another enlightening article!  I love it when our cats play with the dogs.  And they even cuddle together!  I wish that humans would be as tolerant and accepting of diversity as our animals are.

  • Barbs Templeman

    2/16/2015 2:55:39 AM |

    Love your articles, Dr. Jane.  I have learned so much from you.  I have both dogs and cats, and I can honestly say that each one of them have different personalities.  My 3 cats, when mousing, all take a certain part in it that the others won't do, and it's adorable to watch them.  We have a lot of mouse in our 20 acre field and they play with them more than prey on them...but it is definitively a team effort. My Golden even gets in on the action.

  • Ray Carney

    2/16/2015 6:59:16 AM |

    Great educational information Dr. Jane! Whether it be cats or dogs, in my opinion, they're intelligent enough to train us humans to be obedient to their desires, eh? Laughing

    "Save a life... adopt from your local animal shelter"

  • Kim Gardner

    2/27/2015 3:50:23 PM |

    Thats a really new insight into cats.  I have 2 Maine Coons and its interesting to see how they do things.  I used to show them and the last few times I went they had agility competition for the cats, it was so fun to watch.  Loved the article Dr Jane.

  • Regina

    3/10/2015 3:41:14 AM |

    Great article!  Thank you Dr. Jane for all you do for cats!  Cats are truly unique characters.  We have two, a big fluffy one and an orange tabby.  The orange tabby is a hunter and will get field mice.  As he heads home with his find, the big fluffy kitty will run up to the orange one, punch him in the face, take the mouse and trot off as if he was the hunter.  Funny to watch!

  • Jennifer Perez

    12/2/2015 5:18:03 PM |

    Yes, I love them!  They are all unique in their ways and they bring a lot of joy to my life!

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