Fascinating Differences Between Dog and Cat Intelligence

Encephalization Quotient of Dogs and Cats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs and cats are two different species, so comparing intelligence between them is difficult; it is not comparing apples to apples, but scientists still love to do it
  • The “Encephalization Quotient” (EQ) was developed to compare intelligence to brain weight in relation to an animal’s body size; based on EQ, dogs came out smarter than cats
  • Research suggests dogs’ close social interactions with humans have caused them to become progressively more intelligent over time while cats have stayed mostly the same
  • Some argue that the number of neurons is a greater indicator of intelligence than brain size… and in this area cats excel with 300 million neurons in their cerebral cortex compared to dogs’ 160 million
  • Feline intelligence is far less studied because cats are much more difficult to work with than dogs, but studies do show cats have the ability to distinguish between different quantities of objects, follow pointing gestures, and much more

By Dr. Becker

There is perhaps no bigger debate among pet owners than the age-old question of who’s smarter… dogs or cats? You may have your own (strong) opinion, but what does the research say about the intelligence of the two most popular pets in America?

Before I get to that, first understand that this is a very difficult topic of investigation because, at its foundation, even the question is problematic. Dogs and cats are two different species, after all, so comparing intelligence between them is not comparing apples to apples. As Psychology Today put it:1

In the case of dogs versus cats… each are specialized to do different things. Dogs are designed to be more efficient runners while cats have better ability at manipulating things with their paws.

Thus a test that involved pulling strings or operating levers would tend to favor a cat, while a test involving moving from place to place, where speed is a measure of performance, would favor a dog.

Charles Darwin claimed, ‘Intelligence is based on how efficient a species became at doing the things they need to survive,’ and one might argue that by this definition all species that stay healthy, remain numerous and avoid extinction are equally intelligent.”

The Encephalization Quotient: Are Dogs Smarter?

You may have heard the notion that bigger brains are associated with increased intelligence. This is true to a point, but problems arise because bigger animals necessitate larger brains (but this does not necessarily indicate superior intelligence).

According to Stanley Coren, Ph.D, the “Encephalization Quotient” (EQ) was developed in the 1970s as a tool to compare intelligence and brain weight in relation to an animal’s body size,2 thereby solving the problems with previous attempts to link brain size to intelligence.

Using this tool, it turns out that higher brain mass in relation to body size is associated with increased intelligence. Based on EQ, the smartest animals are (in descending order) humans, great apes, porpoises, elephants… and close behind are dogs. Cats come further down on the list (and further down are horses, sheep, mice, rats, and rabbits).

Study: Dogs Are Becoming Smarter Over Time While Cats Stay the Same

Social animals tend to have higher EQs than solitary animals, simply because socializing requires more problem solving, communication and interaction. Dogs are pack animals while cats are not. An interesting point made by Coren, however, is that research suggests dogs’ increasing social demands are making them even smarter.

Those demands come from their close interactions with humans, which have required them to understand human communications over time… to a much larger extent than cats.

Oxford University researchers tested this theory and found, indeed, that based on EQ (using data from fossils to living species) dogs are becoming progressively more intelligent while cats have stayed mostly the same. As Coren explained:3

“This means that not only are dogs smarter than cats, but the gap between the species is increasing over time. At the risk of starting another argument, these data may explain why we never hear about such things as a ‘seeing eye cat,’ ‘police cat’ or ‘search and rescue cat.’”

Feline Cognition Is Less Studied

To be fair, dogs are far easier to train and work with than cats, and this holds true for research studies, too. Could it be that cats are just as intelligent as dogs – or more so… but they just don’t want to let us in on the secret?

Some have argued, for instance, that the number of neurons is a greater indicator of intelligence than brain size… and in this area cats excel. Cats have 300 million neurons in their cerebral cortex – the brain area associated with processing, problem solving, and perception – while dogs have 160 million.

Meanwhile, the fact that dogs can sort objects into categories (which means they have abstract thought) and can tell what people are thinking are indicators of their intelligence. Yet, as Live Science reported, researchers have shown that cats can be trained to do similarly impressive feats, like distinguish between different quantities of objects and follow pointing gestures (like dogs).4

However, it wasn’t easy to get the cats to display their talents. In the case of distinguishing between different quantities… this is an ability that fish also possess, and the researchers said it was far “easier to work with fish than cats.”5 Another interesting distinction, which you can take from what you will, is this:

The research also showed cats and dogs can solve simple puzzles to get food, but when the puzzle is unsolvable, dogs will look to humans for help, whereas cats will keep trying,” Live Science reported.6

Some other interesting cat versus dog facts to consider:

  • Cats can be housetrained in an instant as long as they have access to a litter box. There's really no training to it, in fact. It's instinct. Most dogs, on the other hand, take considerably longer to housebreak, and some just never get all the way there.
  • A dog's memory is only about five minutes long. Kitties can remember up to 16 hours.
  • Cats seem to remember human kindness and return the favor later. If an owner fulfills her feline's wish to interact, the cat will often comply with the owner's desire for contact at other times.

Finally, if you think the differences between cat and dog intelligence are fascinating, you’ll be even more interested to know that whether you prefer cats or dogs may tell you something about your intelligence, too.