Claws vs Paws. Who’s Really Smarter, Cats or Dogs?


There is an ongoing debate and curiosity about the relative intelligence of cats versus dogs. Both make for popular pets and have coexisted with humans for thousands of years. But the ways dogs and cats think and their capacity to understand humans differs in interesting ways.

This article will provide an overview of dog and cat intelligence – how they are smart in different ways, intelligence tests that have been done, perceptions of their smarts, and conclusions from research so far. We’ll dive into the latest science and research around how dogs and cats think and their cognitive capacities. There is still much to explore around how our furry friends perceive the world!

Defining Animal Intelligence

There are many different types of intelligence exhibited by animals. Some key types of animal intelligence include:

  • Spatial intelligence – the ability to perceive spatial relationships and navigate environments. Dogs have strong spatial intelligence to track scents.
  • Emotional intelligence – the ability to perceive and respond to the emotional states of others. Elephants and great apes exhibit high emotional intelligence.
  • Social intelligence – the ability to pick up on social cues and successfully interact with others. Highly social animals like dolphins, wolves, and chimpanzees have very strong social intelligence.
  • Tool use intelligence – the ability to manipulate and use objects as tools to solve problems. Crows, sea otters, and octopuses demonstrate remarkable tool use.
  • Communication intelligence – the ability to communicate knowledge and information between individuals. Many animals like bees, birds, whales and primates have complex communication.
  • Reasoning intelligence – the ability to solve new problems and understand concepts like object permanence and cause and effect relationships. Great apes, crows, elephants exhibit strong reasoning skills.

There are still many mysteries around the scope and mechanisms of intelligence in animals. But it’s clear that animal cognition goes far beyond simple instinctual behaviors.

Dog Intelligence

Dogs have demonstrated various forms of intelligence, including emotional intelligence, spatial intelligence, and communicative intelligence. When it comes to spatial intelligence, studies show that dogs have excellent spatial awareness and navigation skills. They can learn complex routes and find their way home over long distances. Dogs also understand object permanence – knowing that an object still exists even if it is hidden from view (Murray, 2014).

In terms of communication, dogs can understand human gestures, facial expressions, and many words and commands. They communicate back through barking, whining, growling, and body language. Research shows dogs may have a vocabulary of up to 250 words. Dogs are also good at reading human emotions from visual and audio cues (Murray, 2014).

Emotionally, dogs display empathy and the ability to understand human emotions. They exhibit jealousy, guilt, and shame. Dogs are attuned to their owner’s moods and try to comfort people who are sad or distressed. Overall, dogs have a high degree of emotional intelligence (Murray, 2014).


[1] Murray, L. (2014). Dog Intelligence Research. Science Photo Gallery.

Cat Intelligence

Cats display impressive mental capacities in various areas. According to research from Basepaws, cats excel at spatial skills like navigation and mapping. Feral cats can cover large territories up to 2 square miles while remembering locations of resources. Cats also rely on spatial memory to find their way back home if they get lost.

Studies show cats have adapted to survive independently, without needing to cooperate in groups like dogs. This requires skills like hunting, problem-solving, understanding object permanence and cause-and-effect. Cats are adept at solving puzzles to get rewards, manipulating objects and detecting hidden prey using spatial cues.

Researchers have tested cat intelligence using puzzles, mazes and tests. In studies by Academic Accelerator, cats performed well on tasks requiring logic, pattern recognition, timing and memory. Their independent nature allows cats to patiently try different solutions until a puzzle is solved. Overall, studies demonstrate cats have strong spatial abilities, adaptability and complex cognitive capacities.

Intelligence Tests

There are various tests used by researchers to assess and compare animal intelligence across species. Some common categories of tests include:

Maze tests – Animals must navigate through mazes and puzzles to reach food rewards. This tests skills like memory, spatial awareness, and problem solving. Maze tests have been used on rats, cats, dogs, pigs, and other animals.

Discrimination learning – Animals learn to distinguish between visual cues or objects to get rewards. This measures cognitive abilities like perception, association, and concept formation. Pigeons, dolphins, primates and more have undergone discrimination learning tests.

Language and communication tests – Researchers study animals’ capacities for vocalization, language learning, and referential communication. Great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas have demonstrated advanced communication abilities.

Cognition and memory tests – Assessing abilities like numerosity, theory of mind, episodic memory, and causal reasoning, often through interactive tasks. Studies have tested crows, elephants, dolphins and other animals.

Self-recognition tests – Animals identify themselves in a mirror, demonstrating self-awareness. Species like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and magpies have passed the mirror test.

Tool use tests – Observing how animals use objects as tools to achieve goals. Sea otters using rocks to break open shellfish demonstrate a form of tool use.

Insight and problem solving tests – Animals must demonstrate an understanding of concepts, apply logic or infer relationships to succeed. Great apes, crows, elephants and more have showcased insight abilities.

Overall, these various intelligence tests aim to systematically and objectively compare the cognitive and reasoning capacities across species. They show that many animals possess complex intelligence approaching or even matching human abilities.

Results of Dog vs Cat Tests

Direct comparison studies show some key differences between cats and dogs when it comes to intelligence and cognition. In one study published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, researchers compared the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of dogs and cats. The results showed that dogs had over twice as many neurons as cats – around 530 million versus 250 million. Since the cerebral cortex is linked to cognition, learning, memory and other higher brain functions, this suggests dogs may have greater capacities in these areas.

Another study tested cats and dogs on their ability to understand human pointing gestures to find hidden food. Researchers found that dogs consistently performed better than cats in following human pointing and gazing cues to locate the food. This indicates dogs have an edge in reading human social and communicative signals.

However, cats seem to excel at more independent problem solving. In tests of opening puzzle boxes to get treats, cats typically outperform dogs in figuring out the mechanisms on their own through trial and error. So while dogs show stronger social cognition with humans, cats display greater individual critical thinking abilities.

Real World Intelligence

There are many anecdotes and examples that showcase the intelligence of cats and dogs in the real world. Dogs are known for their working intelligence and ability to be trained for jobs like herding sheep, detecting bombs or drugs, and assisting people with disabilities. Some specific examples of brilliant dog behavior include dogs that learn hundreds of words, retrieve specific objects by name, and understand sophisticated sign language (Source).

Cat intelligence often manifests in more independent problem-solving, like figuring out how to open doors or cabinets to get to food. Cats have excellent spatial awareness and mapping abilities that allow them to jump to high places and fit into tight spaces. There are many stories of cats using trial-and-error to solve puzzles or challenges in accessing desired locations. Some cats even learn to do tricks like fetch, walk on a leash, or use a human toilet (Source).

While dogs tend to showcase trained intelligence due to human interaction, cats employ flexible improvisation and reasoning in their natural environment. Both types of intelligence are impressive and complement one another.

Owner Perceptions

Several surveys have gauged pet owners’ views on their pets’ intelligence. In a 2023 survey by the AVMA, 95% of dog owners described their pet as intelligent or very intelligent (AVMA). In another 2023 HABRI survey, 81% of dog owners said their pet’s emotional intelligence was excellent or very good (HABRI).

A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association specifically examined owners’ perceptions of canine intelligence. The researchers surveyed over 3,000 dog owners and found 92% rated their dog’s intelligence as average or above average. Only 8% said their dog’s intelligence was below average (DVM360).

These surveys demonstrate that an overwhelming majority of dog owners view their pets as intelligent, with many describing them as highly or exceptionally intelligent. However, these surveys rely on owners’ subjective perceptions rather than objective intelligence tests.


After reviewing various studies and intelligence tests, we can draw some interesting conclusions about the relative intelligence of dogs and cats.

On standardized intelligence tests designed by researchers, dogs tend to score higher on measures of impulse control, obedience, and working memory. Their social nature and long history of domestication has selected for abilities to understand human cues, follow directions, and solve problems.

Cats tend to show greater independence, curiosity and observational skills on intelligence tests. Their solitary hunting ancestry has led to heightened spatial navigation, object manipulation, and foresight abilities. However, cats are less interested in pleasing humans or following orders.

In real-world settings, both species exhibit an intelligence well-suited to their natural lifestyles and roles. The intelligence of dogs and cats appears adapted to different niches, making comparisons difficult. Elements of both pet’s cognitive capacities and personalities suit them well to life as domestic companions.

While popular views hold that dogs are more obedient and cats more clever, the intelligence of both species is impressive and nuanced. Much remains to be learned about how animals think and solve problems. With better understanding of the selective pressures on canine vs feline cognition, we can better appreciate our gifted pets for their unique talents.

Further Research

The intelligence of dogs and cats is a complex topic that requires further research to fully understand. Here are some open questions and ideas for future studies on dog and cat intelligence:

While dogs and cats have been tested on various problem-solving and cognitive tasks, more comprehensive standardized intelligence testing could better quantify and compare their abilities. Developing intelligence tests specifically for dogs and cats may reveal new insights.

We need a deeper understanding of how breed differences impact intelligence within dog and cat species. Larger sample sizes with multiple breeds tested could identify patterns.

Long-term studies tracking cognitive development and decline over dogs’ and cats’ lifespans would provide useful data on age-related intelligence changes.

Brain imaging studies on areas linked to intelligence in dogs and cats could uncover neurological differences underpinning their cognitive abilities.

Researching how nutrition, environment, training, and other factors influence IQ could identify lifestyle interventions to optimize dogs’ and cats’ intellectual capacities.

Surveying dog and cat owners on perceived intelligence vs actual tested intelligence may reveal interesting disparities between public perceptions and measurable cognitive abilities.

Comparative research on dog vs cat intelligence across different types of tasks could reveal their relative strengths and weaknesses.

Further research on dog and cat intelligence stands to greatly expand our understanding of these beloved pets’ minds and abilities.

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