LIFESTYLE

How Smart are Cats: Exploring the Scope of Feline Intelligence

smart cat with books
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Research has shown that a cat demonstrates her smartness in several ways. Coaxing you into playing with her, making different sounds to suit various needs, and greeting you at the door the same time every day are just a few examples. With humans being presumed to be the smartest in the animal kingdom, it is only normal that any creature’s intelligence is measured based on human parameters. This begs the question: How smart are cats?

If you want to know how smart are cats compared to humans, the answer is: a cat’s intelligence has fared quite well. However, there are several differences in terms of memory, behavior, and brain size among others.

Does this mean that cats are less intelligent? We have delved into research and have come up with detailed reports concerning the topic. By the time you are done reading, you should be in a good position to make an educated guess.

We will take you through a few aspects of a cat’s life that show intelligence or lack of it. We will also explain how to check your cat’s smartness right at home. Our parting shot is a list of fun facts on feline intelligence that are sure to blow your mind. Keep reading for more details.

How Does a Cat’s Brain Work in Comparison to a Human’s Brain?

cat's and human's brain

Cats are classified among the smartest creatures compared to other animals. While smartness has everything to do with the brain, this is a rather odd ranking considering the size of a cat’s head and the small brain that it must contain compared to a human’s.

As a matter of fact, a cat’s brain occupies about 0.9% of their body size while a human’s takes about 2%.

According to experts, the size of the brain hardly matters as far as intelligence is concerned. Brain structure and surface folding are instead the main determinants. Fortunately, cats are well endowed in that department. They are about 90% similar to humans.

The nerve cells that are in charge of thoughts and rational decision making are 21-26 billion in human beings and about 300 million in cats. These cells are found in the cerebral cortex. This part of the brain is also responsible for solving problems and storing both long-term and short-term memories.

Cats learn in a similar way to humans: through observing and doing. Behaviorists have compared an adult cat’s intelligence to that of a two-year-old human toddler.

Let us look at the different aspects of feline intelligence below.

#1: Memory

cat in a litter box

One thing that sets aside humans from other members of the animal kingdom is memory. This is the function of the mind that translates information, stores, and allows its retrieval.

The ability to remember past events is the basis for individuality. It also influences future actions, which in essence shows how smart a person is.

So how does a cat’s memory fare in comparison to their owners? Your furry friend will easily trace her litter box and feeding bowl. She is also able to use the trap door, sleep on the same sunny spot, and even pick you out from a crowd.

Such actions can be seen as trivial, but when you think about smartness, they carry a lot of weight.

Is it that cats retain memory long enough to retrace their steps from the previous day? Are their actions a factor of remembering or is it out of senses, say of smell and sight, that they have to employ on every instance?

To better understand this aspect of feline intelligence, several research experiments have been carried out over the years.

One such research was carried out by Britta Osthaus, a psychology lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University of Kent, England. The test involved gauging cats’ memory on whether they could correctly seek out a string that was baited with fish and biscuits treats that were hidden behind a plastic screen.

With a single baited string, the cats were able to pull the string to bring the treat closer. However, with two parallel strings whereby only one was baited, they could not consistently choose the right string. The results were similar when the two strings were crossed; no one feline performed beyond the limits of probability/chance.

The results showed that there is a limit to what passes as feline intelligence. While your four-legged friend is able to go through her day in a seamless routine, most of her actions possibly rely on instincts and senses rather than memory.

The above test is based on a cat’s ability to remember the cause and effect of their actions. While they fail, it’s good to note that they can remember information for short periods of time; this is known as the working memory.

Tests have shown that when a cat is shown a toy that is then hidden in their presence, they can find it after a short duration lasting 10 seconds to 1 minute. This aspect of intelligence is known as permanence recognition.

It’s the understanding that a hidden object does not vanish and that it can still be retrieved. The behavior is comparable to one-year-old human babies who can find toys, food, and other objects when they are hidden in their presence.

An adult cat’s smartness is similar to that of a two-year-old toddler. At this age, if an object is hidden without the baby seeing it, they are able to search for it actively. This level of intelligence is known as stage 6.

Not many cats are able to reach this stage. However, the few that excel up to this level do so when more feline-friendly parameters are used.

The aptitude of a feline, however, fares well when it comes to long-term memories. Cats have shown the ability to recall experiences surrounding events that happened over ten years ago or more.

These fall under procedural or episodic memories. Actions that involve this type of memory includes things like opening doors and ringing bells. Once cats learn these, they can recall the actions even after they have been removed from the same environment for a long time.

This explains why cats will exhibit fear on a return visit to the vet’s if the past visits were traumatizing. They will also remember joyous events, especially those that involve treats and play. A return to locations where such memories were made will make them feel excited.

See Also: How Long is a Cat’s Memory

#2: Following Cues and Signs

cat and human's hand

Smartness is not just about memories; being able to pick up signs and cues also play a big role.

Think about how easily a two-year-old baby understands the meanings behind gestures like nodding, shaking your head, and pointing towards something. Together with comprehension of words and sounds, visual signals are excellent indicators of smartness.

Felines have a limited grasp of human language but can readily identify gestures and act accordingly. Studies have proven that a cat’s action can be influenced by pointing gestures. This followed a research in which the communicative behavior of cats was judged on their ability to pick up human’s gestures to choose between objects.

In the study, two bowls were put before the test subjects. One bowl had food, and the other was empty. With the food being out of the visual range of the felines, different pointing cues were used to guide them to the right bowl (the one containing food). The cats were found to consistently and easily choose correctly.

The results signify that cats can tell the intentions or desires of others from reading their body language. This is no mere feat within the animal kingdom. Remember though, just like a two-year-old kid, your furry friend will exercise some degree of defiance by refusing to respond as you might expect.

See Also: How Do Cats Show Affection

#3: Concept of Time

cat and clock

Time is another factor that has been used to compare smartness between humans and cats. This is one area where felines actually outdo their masters. This is evident from everyday scenarios that involve keeping a schedule. Such include reliance on alarm beeps to wake up or having to check the time before going for meals.

Unlike us, cats are able to assess time differences between different events without help. This explains why your fur baby will meow for food right around the same time every day.

Your cat can tell when to rub her head against you in an attempt to wake you up—typically with a mere few minutes of difference every morning.

Reliance on gadgets like watches can be said to be a smart tactic. However, when it comes down to primal survival, lack of this innate ability would put humans at a disadvantage.

How to Test Your Cat’s Intelligence

kitten opening door

Based on the above information, you do not have to book a fancy test with a vet or other examiners to know how intelligent your cat is. There are simple DIY tests that can keep you informed. Here are several of them.

Put a packet of food or treats near your cat’s food bowl and watch. Your cat may react to this in several ways; she may look at you anxiously and then at the food, waiting for you to open it; she may try to open the packet herself or may just choose to ignore it completely.

If your cat chooses the last option, she might be running a little low on intelligence.

Another way to test this is to hold your cat’s favorite toy, let her have a good look at it, and then hide it behind or under something else.

If she goes ahead and starts looking for the hidden toy, she understands that the object must be somewhere and it didn’t just disappear, as explained above. This intelligence level is equivalent to that of an 18-24 months old child.

Here are other ways to tell if your cat is intelligent. Your cat is considered intelligent if he:

  • Transforms into hunting mode the moment he sees a toy mouse
  • Hides when you take out the pet carrier
  • Has learned to do a few things like opening the drawer or the cupboard
  • Asks to be let outside at the door when she sees birds on the other side of the window
  • Can trace her litter box almost immediately after you’ve changed its position
  • Can pick out someone who bothered her before from a crowd and avoid them while remaining friendly to others
  • Learns a trick fast and remembers it even a month down the line
  • Allows you to pet or massage certain areas of her body by adjusting her position
  • Comes to you when you call out her name
  • Manages to get you out of bed to make her some breakfast

There are so many other tests to use, but the above should give you somewhere to start. Your cat may not do all of these things, but if she does most of them, she is a smart furry bundle.

Fun Facts about Cat Intelligence

impressed cat

Below are seven fun facts that touch on your cat’s intelligence and unique abilities.

  • Compared to digital devices, a cat’s brain stores over 1,000 times more data than an iPad. It also operates about a million times faster.
  • They can make 26 facial expressions.
  • 25,000 processors are needed to simulate a cat’s brain.
  • Whiskers detect changes in air pressure and currents. This gives cats an edge in detecting oncoming weather changes.
  • Unlike a human’s, a cat’s ears can make a 180o turn, helping them to assess their environment better. They can also move each ear separately.
  • They can hear frequencies that are far beyond the range of a human ear’s capability.
  • They have a 280o eye-view.

Wrap Up

gray cat reading book

Almost every assessment of intelligence is done from humans’ point of view. Cats haven’t fared badly, but they could probably do better.

A cat’s intelligence test is basically a measure of how much she can observe her human companion, learn, remember, and apply the same in her life. What if she cannot do that excellently? Does that make her dumb?

On the contrary, think about how much better you would fare if your intelligence were measured from a cat’s point of view and in a feline-friendly environment.

To borrow Albert Einstein’s quote: “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing that it is stupid.” The point is, every cat is smart when assessed using cat-friendly parameters, so if you think that your furry bundle is smart, she most likely is!

Do you think your cat is smart? Share some the aspects of her life that make her stand out with us. Did you find this information helpful? Leave us your feedback below. If you want to understand your cat even better, check out our article on what does it mean when a cat licks you.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

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