How Smart are Cats?

Our cats seem extremely intelligent, they always seem to know exactly what we're up to and when their dinner time should be, but how intelligent are they really? Here at Purina we've researched everything you need to know about the topic, keep reading to find out how smart they really are.
Siamese smart cat breed

Cats certainly seem intelligent. Our cats always know exactly what time their breakfast should be and that the sight of the cat carrier means a dreaded trip to the vets. They seem to be able to anticipate our every move and know what we’re thinking, but we never feel like we know what’s going on in their brains. This is largely due to cats being mysterious creatures and the fact that they have eluded scientists because of their reluctance to participate in studies. So, the question still remains: how intelligent are cats?

In this article we take a look at the current research surrounding cat intelligence as well as the age-old debate of if cats are smarter than dogs. Keep reading to learn which are the smartest cat breeds and learn all about the cat mail delivery service in the late 19th century.

How intelligent are cats?

It turns out that cats have a brain structure that’s similar to other intelligent animals, including humans. It may come as a surprise to learn that your little cat’s brain structure is about 90 percent similar to yours!

And according to Psychology Today, a cat’s cerebral cortex – where rational decision making and complex problem solving takes place – has around 300 million neurons. The cerebral cortex is involved in the planning of action, overall interpretation of language and is also responsible for storing both short- and long-term memory, which is why your cat tends to learn by doing rather than seeing. Not only that, but cats also possess more nerve cells in the visual areas of their brain than humans and most other mammals.

However, calculating how intelligent cats are depends on how you measure intelligence in the first place.

Which are the smartest cat breeds?

Most people claim that the top three smartest cat breeds are Abyssinians, Siamese and Bengals. But this is because cat intelligence is usually ranked on sociability and willingness to interact with owners. Abyssinians, Siamese and Bengals are all incredibly social breeds that are happiest when they’re interacting and playing with their owners. They can even be taught to perform tricks!

Bengal cat in a tree

But it’s not all about breed when considering how smart cats are, as a little tabby cat named Nora can actually play the piano! Apparently, she was never actually taught how to play the piano as a trick and instead picked it up by herself because her owner teaches piano at their home, so she learned through imitating them. She’s been playing the piano since she was a year old and was the only cat out of six in the home that decided to pick it up. How’s that for cat intelligence?

Are cats smarter than dogs?

The question of whether cats or dogs are smarter is a never-ending debate between cat and dog owners. Both sides seem to have valid reasons for thinking their furry friend is the smartest, but what does the science actually say on the matter?

According to research into animal intelligence, dogs are generally seen as the smarter of the two due to the fact that they’re much more trainable. Dogs have been domesticated for longer than cats and seem to be more sociable and willing to please humans, which is why they’ve been successful at various tasks such as guiding the blind, search and rescue and for police work.

But that’s only one way to measure intelligence. Cats can be viewed as more intelligent due to their unwillingness to follow humans and participate in studies, as they have their own mind and refuse to participate in meaningless tasks simply to please their owners. Additionally, where many may believe that the reason cats ignore them is because they can’t understand you, it’s actually due to the fact that cats don’t feel the need to acknowledge you as much as dogs do. As Literature Professor Mary Bly said, “Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you.”

are cats smarter than dogs?

Studies conducted on both cats and dogs give us further insight into which are smarter. According to one done in 2009, cats are not be as good at counting or identifying quantities of things as dogs or fish are. Yet in another study, it was discovered that cats are able to follow puzzles, but unlike dogs who will seek help from their owners, cats will simply keep trying until they get it. So, where dogs are definitely the more social of the two and are more likely to want to please their owners, cats are much more independent and prefer to do things for themselves.

Essentially, this means that a cat’s intelligence is hard to directly compare to that of a dog.  

The cat express service

Many dog lovers think that a dog’s ability to help humans with tasks makes them smarter than cats. But while there aren’t guide cats or police cats, there have actually been mail delivery cats! According to a New York Times article, in the late 19th century the Belgian Society to the Elevation of the Domestic Cat briefly used cats to send messages back and forth from Belgian villages.

During the experiment, 37 cats were used and the messages were put in waterproof bags and attached around their necks. The quickest cat reached their destination in under 5 hours and all of the others made it back within 24 hours. The service was discontinued as pigeons were quicker, but we bet they didn’t look nearly as cute!

So how intelligent are cats? Pretty smart actually! They’re incredibly independent animals, they can understand numerous things (even though they may choose to ignore you) and they even have fantastic short- and long-term memories!

Want to find out more information on cat behaviour? Take a look at our content hub.