How Big Is Cat Brain?

This article will provide an in-depth look at the size of a cat’s brain and what that reveals about feline intelligence and cognition. Though a cat’s brain is much smaller than a human’s, its structure and activity power complex behaviors and advanced capabilities. We will explore how the size of a cat’s brain compares to other animals, how brain size correlates to intelligence across species, and what the brains of cats can do despite their diminutive size. Key areas covered include the anatomical structure of the feline brain, quantitative size comparisons between cat brains and other animals, cognition and intelligence capabilities, brain growth and development, genetics and evolution of the cat brain, health impacts, and care/enrichment strategies for optimal brain health. The goal is to give cat owners and enthusiasts a deeper understanding of our feline friends’ amazing minds.

Anatomical Structure

Like all mammals, a cat’s brain can be divided into several main parts including the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brainstem Parts of the Nervous System in Cats – Cat Owners. The cerebrum is the largest part of the brain and consists of left and right cerebral hemispheres. It controls high-level cognitive functions like learning, memory, perception, and voluntary movements. The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of the cerebrum and is associated with consciousness, thought, intelligence, reasoning, and memory. Underneath the cerebrum is the cerebellum which coordinates balance, posture, and motor skills. At the base of the brain is the brainstem which controls unconscious vital functions like breathing, heart rate, and digestion.

The spinal cord connects to the base of the brainstem and runs down the neck and back carrying nerve signals between the brain and the rest of the body. Like the brain, the spinal cord consists of gray matter and white matter – gray matter contains neuron cell bodies while white matter contains the nerve fibers or axons Structure and Function of the Brain and Spinal Cord in Cats. Other key parts of cat brain anatomy include the thalamus, hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and pineal gland.

Brain Size Comparisons

When it comes to brain size, cats have smaller brains than many other mammals. According to research from Vanderbilt University, the average cat brain contains around 250 million cortical neurons compared to 530 million in the average dog (Source 1, Source 2). Dogs have more neurons and greater brain volume overall. Other large mammals like elephants, whales, and primates have brain sizes multiple times larger than the domestic cat.

However, when comparing brain size to body size, cats have a higher brain-to-body mass ratio than dogs. The brain only makes up about 0.9% of a cat’s body mass, compared to 0.7% for dogs. Having a larger brain relative to body size is associated with greater intelligence and cognitive abilities. So while a cat’s total brain size is smaller, the brain’s proportional size to the body is larger than many other mammals.

Cognition and Intelligence

Cats have evolved complex cognitive abilities that allow them to effectively hunt prey and survive in their environments. However, there is debate around the concept of animal “intelligence” and how to measure it across species. Some key aspects of cat cognition include:

Spatial memory and mapping – Cats have a strong spatial mapping system that allows them to navigate environments and remember locations. This mental mapping helps them return to valued resources like food and shelter sites (

Observational learning – Cats are able to learn by watching the behaviors of other cats and humans. For example, they can learn to open doors by watching humans or get motivated to play with new toys after observing other cats playing (

Problem-solving abilities – Cats are capable of solving puzzles, opening containers to get food, and figuring out how to manipulate objects in their environment to achieve goals. Their curiosity helps drive problem-solving behavior.

While cats have impressive cognitive abilities that suit their needs as predators and solo hunters, their intelligence may be more limited compared to highly social species like dogs. More research is still needed to fully understand feline cognition and intelligence (

Brain Growth

A cat’s brain undergoes significant growth and development in the first year of life. According to the Developmental Stages of Kitten Behavior by PAWS, a kitten’s brain grows rapidly from birth to approximately 6 months of age. The brain reaches 70% of adult size by 3 months and keeps developing until maturity. The key stages for brain growth are:

  • 0-2 weeks: The neonatal period. The brainstem and cerebellum develop connections.
  • 2-7 weeks: Socialization period. Brain learns behaviors and forms pathways.
  • 3-6 months: Ranking period. Brain continues rapid development.
  • 6-18 months: Adolescence. Brain reaches adult size and refines pathways.

According to the Feline Developmental Stages overview, a kitten’s brain at birth is very small but grows quickly. Myelination of neurons starts around 2 weeks and continues into adulthood. Brain weight increases nearly 6 times from birth to maturity. Neurogenesis peaks at 2 weeks old, right before the eyes and ears open and socialization begins. This early period sets the foundation for learning and future behavior.

Brain Activity

Studies have uncovered interesting insights into brain activity in cats, particularly related to neuronal firing patterns. Research using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure electrical activity in the brains of young cats found distinct changes as cats matured from 2 weeks to 1 year old. Specifically, amplitude, absolute power, and transient activity decreased from 2 weeks to 12 weeks, indicating substantial development of cortical inhibitory innervation during this time [1].

Other studies have examined neuronal firing patterns in specific brain regions of adult cats. One analysis of the lateral cerebellum during visual guide stepping in cats identified 166 neurons with various types of discharge patterns related to locomotion. Some neurons showed increased firing during the step cycle, while others fired more strongly when the cat was standing still [2]. Overall, researchers found diverse neuronal firing patterns in the lateral cerebellum reflecting its complex role in sensorimotor control and coordination.

Genetics and Evolution

The genetic factors that influence a cat’s brain development and intelligence over evolutioin are complex. Some key points on genetics, evolution and the feline brain include:

Cats evolved from a common ancestor to modern carnivorans around 35 million years ago. Their brains underwent genetic changes to support their predatory lifestyle (Wikipedia).

The cerebral cortex, associated with higher cognition, evolved to be much larger in cats compared to other mammals. Genes linked to neuron growth are likely involved (Fear Free Homes).

Selective breeding by humans over thousands of years has influenced some behavioral traits and intelligence in domestic cats. But much brain development remains under genetic control (

Differences in gene expression in cortical regions of the brain are associated with individual variations in learning, memory and problem solving seen between cats (Wikipedia).

Overall, genetics and evolutionary pressures have produced complex brains in cats capable of flexible behavior, learning and communication.

Health and Disease

Neurological diseases can have a major impact on a cat’s brain and cognition. According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, common neurological disorders in cats include epilepsy, vestibular disease, and cognitive dysfunction syndrome (source).

Epilepsy causes recurring seizures due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain. This can lead to temporary impairment of brain function during seizures. Vestibular disease affects balance and spatial orientation, making cats dizzy and disoriented. Cognitive dysfunction syndrome is similar to dementia in humans, causing progressive decline in cognitive function.

These neurological disorders can greatly impact a cat’s mental abilities. Epileptic seizures cause temporary disruptions in consciousness, awareness, and processing. Vestibular disease impairs navigation and spatial processing. Cognitive decline from cognitive dysfunction syndrome affects memory, learning, awareness, and response to stimuli.

Proper diagnosis and treatment of neurological conditions is important to manage symptoms and support cognitive health. Medications, therapy, environmental enrichment, and mental stimulation can help cats with neurological diseases maintain quality of life.

Care and Enrichment

It’s important for cat owners to provide proper care and enrichment for their feline companions. This is especially true for indoor cats, who face limited environmental stimulation. Providing an enriching environment allows cats to engage their natural behaviors and prevents boredom.

There are many ways to enrich a cat’s environment. Cat trees, shelves, and perches allow cats to climb and survey their territory from above (ASPCA). Scratching posts give cats an appropriate place to scratch and stretch their muscles. Puzzles and treat balls stimulate a cat’s natural hunting instinct by making them work for their food (Drake Center). Rotating toys keeps cats engaged and allows them to simulate stalking prey. Even simple things like empty boxes, paper bags, and ping pong balls can provide mental stimulation.

It’s also important to provide mental exercise for cats through playtime and positive interactions. Wand toys and interactive games allow cat owners to engage their pet’s natural prey drive. Solo hunting simulations, like putting treats in paper bags or boxes, also stimulate mental exercise (DAWS). Most importantly, cats benefit from daily play sessions and quality time with their human companions.

With proper environmental factors and mental exercise, cat owners can keep their feline friends happy, healthy, and enriched within an indoor home.


Our examination of cats’ brains has revealed that while feline brains are smaller than human brains, they are still remarkably complex organs. Cats have evolved specific neurological adaptations as hunter predators, including heightened senses of hearing, sight, and smell. Their brains have areas responsible for advanced cognition like spatial navigation, observational learning, and object recognition. Studies show cats form social bonds, communicate with humans, and can distinguish individual people. While smaller than dogs’ brains, cats have more neurons in some key areas related to intelligence. However, many open questions remain about the extent of cats’ thinking abilities. More research is needed to fully understand feline cognition, sociality, memory formation, and capacity for language. What we do know is that cats’ enigmatic minds warrant appreciation and further study. Their neural complexity enables behaviors, emotions, and relationships that meaningfully intersect with human lives.

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