Dog and cat owners make a lot of assumptions about the intelligence of their four-legged companions. Of course, we all like to imagine that our Fido or Felix is the smartest animal that has ever picked up – or jumped on – a ball. Can we then settle the secular debate? Which species is smarter: dogs or cats?
Turns out the answer isn’t as straightforward as animal lovers might like.
“Canine cognition researchers are not studying ‘intelligence’ per se; we are looking at different aspects of cognition,” Alexandra Horowitz, senior canine cognition researcher at Barnard College in New York and author of “Inside a dog: what dogs see, smell and know“(Scribner, 2010) said Live Science in an email.
Related: Why do dogs and cats run in random bursts of speed?
In fact, Horowitz questions the human habit of comparing intelligence between species.
“In its simplest form, cats are smart about what cats need to do and dogs are smart about dog things,” she said. “I don’t think it makes sense at all to talk about ‘intelligent’ relative species.”
Brian Hare, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, agreed with this assessment.
“Asking if a dog is smarter than a cat is like asking if a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver – it depends on what it was designed for,” he told Live. Science in an email.
That’s not to say that animal behavior researchers haven’t tried to measure the intelligence of dogs and cats – or, more specifically, cognitive abilities beyond those needed to sustain life.
Kristyn Vitale, assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College in Maine, said animal intelligence is generally divided into three broad areas: problem-solving ability, concept formation (the ability to form general concepts from specific concrete experiences) and social intelligence. .
Vitale primarily studies cats, and her current focus on the inner life of cats revolves around social intelligence. Often stereotyped as aloof and disinterested from humans, cats actually show a high degree of social intelligence, “often on par with dogs,” she told Live Science in an email.
For example, studies show that cats can distinguish between their names and similar sounding words, and they turned out favor human interactions to food, toys and perfumes. Human attention makes the difference for cats: a 2019 study published in the journal Behavioral processes found that when a person paid attention to a cat, the cat reacted by spending more time with that person.
In one of the few studies that directly compared cats and dogs, researchers found no significant difference between the species’ ability to find hidden food using human score cues. However, the researchers noted that “cats lacked certain components of attention behavior compared to dogs.” (Pet owners who have seen a dog begging in its bowl while a cat went away know exactly what the researchers observed.)
Related: What do cats and dogs remember?
Then there is the size of the brain. A commonly held notion is that brain size dictates relative intelligence, and if that were still true, dogs would seem to prevail.
Hare said he and University of Arizona anthropologist Evan MacLean had recruited more than 50 researchers around the world to perform a test they had developed on 550 animal species, including “birds, monkeys, monkeys, dogs, lemurs and elephants, ”he said.
The idea was to test a cognitive trait, self-control, or what researchers call “inhibitory control”, across species. Their test, reported in a 2014 article published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was the animal version of the famous 1972 Stanford University study in which children aged 3 to 5 were tested for their ability to delay eating a marshmallow.
The cross-species study showed that “the bigger an animal’s brain, the more self-control it exhibited in our animal marshmallow test,” Hare said. The ability to exercise self-control is one indication of superior cognitive function.
But there’s a catch: cats weren’t included in the test, so while we can speculate on their performance based on their brain size, we don’t really know.
Another thing to keep in mind when doing this type of intelligence assessment is that we can treat dogs and cats differently, Vitale said.
“For example, dogs are often well socialized and attend puppy lessons, take car rides and go to the dog park,” she said. “Cat owners offer their cats fewer of these types of socialization and training opportunities.”
So, in the end, who wins? Perhaps the takeaway is to appreciate your pet’s special type of intelligence, especially social intelligence which makes them delicious companions.
Originally posted on Live Science.