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How Intelligent Are Cats? Here’s What Science Says

Bengal Cat

There’s no question that our cats are quite smart. They recognize their names and your voice, and they are highly inquisitive, which is a sign of intelligence. They also can be trained — as long as they feel like it, of course.

Here, we examine how intelligent our cats are and what exactly makes them so smart. We even look at a few of the studies that have measured how intelligent cats are in general and what the most intelligent cat breeds are.

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Before We Begin

There is a decided lack of studies that have examined the intelligence of cats (there are plenty that have evaluated dogs’ intelligence, however).

David Grimm is the Online News Editor of Science Magazine and is an expert on the science of dogs and cats. According to Grimm, by 2004, there were multiple papers on canine intelligence published by several labs around the world, yet there were no studies on how smart cats were up to that time.

Since 2004, there have been a few studies conducted with a focus on cats, but of course, the world could use more! The studies that have been conducted have found that the biggest obstacle for researching cats is their independent natures.

Hungarian ethologist Dr. Ádám Miklósi wrote a paper about his study on how dogs and cats communicate with people. Miklósi stated that he found it quite challenging to work with cats because they didn’t usually cooperate, follow directions, or participate quite the same way that the dogs did.

So, the lack of research into feline intelligence is due to their lack of cooperation. Anyone with a cat should completely understand this. Our cats enjoy doing things their own way most, if not all, of the time. But isn’t this why we love them?

Related Read: Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs? What You Need To Know!

cat playing an interactive toy
Image Credit: Maire, Pixabay

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Animal behavior educator and researcher Kristyn Vitale has focused on cat behavior and social cognition and how humans and cats interact. Vitale carried out a study that examined whether cats would choose toys, food, or interacting with a human. Vitale used 55 cats, which also included cats from animal shelters. For this study, these cats were all given the opportunity to choose between the three options. Just over half the cats chose human interaction over the other two, but not surprisingly, food was a close second.

Cats all have distinctive personalities and behavioral traits, which can help explain the results of this study. Some cats will prefer playtime, while others want the treat or to snuggle up on a warm lap. Perhaps for further research into the intelligence of cats, some of these techniques should be used.

cat playing with owner
Image Credit: Dora Zett, Shutterstock

The Independent Cat

Cats can be rather mysterious, and they pick and choose when they are willing to do something for us. They don’t typically have the same patience as dogs and are more impulsive. Most dogs are devoted and would do almost anything for their owners, especially if praise and treats are involved.

While cats have the smarts and ability to be trained, they will only follow through on directions if they feel like it, even if they love their owners.

Smithsonian Magazine wrote about a 2013 study that discovered that cats can recognize their owner’s voice but may choose to ignore it. Cat owners are probably not surprised by this. The study’s overall conclusion is that since cats have never been trained to obey humans’ orders the way that dogs have, they have a much higher level of independence.

Miklósi also believes that cats don’t do as well in lab tests as their canine counterparts because of the stressful environment and having to interact with humans with whom they aren’t familiar. Yet, some cats have passed the lab tests, so Miklósi concluded that cats can successfully complete these studies if they have been well-socialized and are relaxed.

Furthermore, ethologist Péter Pongrácz attempted a study with 99 cats but only received data from 41 of these cats because of that famous feline independence.

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The Smartest Breeds

All cats are fairly smart, but certain breeds top the chart. Cats that tend to be curious and seem to get into everything tend to be the more intelligent felines, particularly because they enjoy the challenge.

So, here are the top five smartest cats in alphabetical order:
  • Balinese: These cats are related to the Siamese and are chatty cats that tend to get into trouble, particularly if they aren’t challenged enough.
  • Bengal: These miniature jaguars are energetic and need mental challenges to keep them from getting bored.
  • Burmese: When the Burmese become bored, expect naughty behavior. They are playful and can be trained, and they enjoy time spent with their owners.
  • Savannah: These cats were originally bred from African servals, so they are active and large. You need to provide them with opportunities to exercise and mental challenges because they get bored easily.
  • Siamese: Last but not least, the Siamese cat is one of the most popular breeds in the world. They are highly intelligent and are known for their chattiness and their affectionate natures.
Seal Point Balinese
Image Credit: Jenni Ferreira, Shutterstock

Just How Smart Are Cats?

Considering how difficult it is to conduct studies with cats, it’s truly difficult to say. We all know that they are smart, but measuring that intelligence in a scientific study has been proven to be quite difficult.

Vitale said that when researchers encounter challenges when studying cats, the problem isn’t with the cats themselves but with the methods that the researchers are using. So, the famous mysteriousness of the cat will continue for science unless they find a way to get the answers that they’re looking for by using appropriate methods. Meanwhile, we cat owners just know that our kitties are smart.

Does your cat seem to respond when you call their name? Can they tell the difference between your voice and a stranger’s? If a toy or a treat is behind something, like furniture, can they figure out how to get it (unless it’s impossible, of course)? If the answer is yes to these questions, chances are that you have a smart kitty!

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Conclusion

Cats are smart but only on their own terms. They can make decisions that benefit themselves and not necessarily their owners, and they are highly independent, which also says much about their intelligence.

We also know that our cats can act in mysterious ways. Why does your cat keep knocking the remote control onto the floor time and time again? While this might seem like your cat is misbehaving, consider that this behavior gets your attention every single time.

It’s more than likely that our cats are smarter than we realize, so while science and research try to figure this out, we just know that our cats are intelligent and sensitive creatures and that we love them.


Featured Image Credit: Irina_kukuts, Pixabay

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