Inside a Cat’s Brain. Are Cats as Smart as Humans?


The intelligence of cats compared to humans is an interesting topic to explore. Intelligence can be defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. While human and feline intelligence differ greatly in some regards, certain parallels can also be drawn.

Comparing the cognitive abilities of cats to those of humans provides insight into how the feline mind works. Cats display many intelligent behaviors, including problem solving, communication, and memory. Examining where cats’ abilities overlap or differ from our own can reveal the selective pressures that shaped the evolution of the feline brain. Additionally, exploring how cats learn and think helps us better understand how to care for our feline companions.

While cats clearly do not possess the same level of intelligence as humans, emerging research suggests feline cognition is more complex than previously believed. This article will analyze the current scientific understanding of how the structure and abilities of the cat brain compare to the human brain.

Cat Brain Structure

The cat brain has the same basic regions as the human brain, including the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem, but is much smaller in size. An average cat brain weighs about 25-30 grams, while the average human brain weighs around 1300-1400 grams (Source).

The cerebral cortex, which controls higher functions like thinking, reasoning, and language, makes up a larger percentage of the human brain compared to the cat brain. The cat cerebral cortex has fewer folds and wrinkles (gyri and sulci) than the highly convoluted human cerebral cortex (Source).

The olfactory bulb, which processes smell, is proportionally much larger in the cat brain than the human brain. Cats have an excellent sense of smell that is 14 times better than humans (Source). The area of the cat brain dedicated to visual processing is also larger than in humans.

While smaller, the cat brain is still complex with similar regions and neurotransmitters as the human brain. But differences in size and proportion of brain regions reflect different evolutionary adaptations between cats and humans.

Language Ability

Cats lack the cognitive skills and physical anatomy needed for human-level language abilities. However, they do communicate through sounds, facial expressions, and scent marking. Humans have a large cerebral cortex that allows us to learn complex language composed of words and grammar. Cats, on the other hand, have a much smaller cerebral cortex. Their vocalizations consist mainly of meows, purrs, hisses and growls to convey basic messages like fear, contentment or distress.

While cats can recognize familiar words and sounds, they associate them with rewards or outcomes rather than having a full understanding of human language. For example, a cat learns that the sound of a can opener might mean they are about to be fed. Or they recognize their name being called means attention from their human. However, cats do not comprehend the meanings of sentences or human conversations beyond these simple associations 1. Overall, a cat’s ability to understand human language is limited compared to a human child learning its native language.


Cats have excellent long-term memories and can remember other animals and people over many years. According to PetMD, cats have spatial memory for remembering locations, short-term memory for retaining information for a few minutes, and episodic memory for recalling events and experiences (PetMD).

While a cat’s long-term memory may not be as extensive as a human’s, their spatial memory is superior. Cats have been shown to remember where their food is located even when it is moved, and they can recall complex routes through spaces (Modkat). However, their short-term memory lasts only about 16 hours compared to humans, who can retain short-term memories for days or weeks.

There are notable examples of cats displaying impressive long-term memory. Some cats have remembered previous owners after years of separation. Other cats have shown the ability to recall specific routes, objects, and locations from over a decade ago. While cats may not remember episodic details as vividly as humans, their spatial memory allows them to form durable long-term memories.

Problem Solving

Cats exhibit impressive problem-solving abilities, especially when motivated by food rewards. According to Pet Circle, cat owners can test their pet’s problem-solving skills using puzzle feeders or interactive toys. When presented with these challenges, cats must find creative ways to manipulate the devices to access treats inside. Their ability to quickly analyze the situation and devise a solution shows advanced cognitive skills.

Compared to humans, cats take a more tactical approach to problem-solving. As stated by Cat Bandit, they focus on the immediate situation rather than long-term strategy. Humans can apply knowledge gained in the past to new experiences, while cats rely more on instinct and trial-and-error. However, a cat’s persistence and observational skills allow it to eventually achieve its goal in most problem-solving scenarios.

Some examples of cats using their intelligence to tackle problems include opening doors and cabinets, operating doorbells to get owners’ attention, and figuring out how to get to hard-to-reach places. While humans clearly have more advanced cognition, cats exhibit an impressive capacity for situational analysis and creative thinking.

Social Cognition

Cats are social animals that live together in groups called colonies. They rely on complex communication methods like body language, pheromones, and vocalizations to maintain their social structure. Cats also develop affiliative relationships with each other, especially between mother cats and their kittens.

There is some evidence that cats may possess theory of mind – the ability to attribute mental states like beliefs, desires, and intentions to others. One study found that cats understand human pointing gestures to locate hidden food, suggesting they recognize communicative intent in humans. Cats also seem able to recognize human emotions based on facial expressions and vocal cues.

However, cats likely have less robust social cognition abilities compared to humans. Their social structures are less complex and hierarchy-based. While cats recognize emotions in others, they may not have higher-order theory of mind capacities like understanding false beliefs. More research is needed to fully understand the extent of cats’ social cognition.

In summary, cats do have notable social intelligence that allows them to navigate social relationships. But their social cognition appears more rudimentary than human abilities for perspective-taking and reasoning about others’ mental states.


Cats exhibit creativity and innovation in various ways, though not to the extensive levels that humans demonstrate. As independent creatures, cats are often motivated to find new solutions to problems or challenges in their environment. For example, cats may figure out how to open doors and cabinets to get to food or other desired objects ( Their curiosity leads them to explore and interact with objects in innovative ways. According to Stephen C. Lundin’s book CATS: The Nine Lives of Innovation, cats create an environment conducive to sparking new ideas by reducing stress and promoting play and relaxation (

However, human innovation far surpasses that of cats due to our more complex cognitive abilities, greater social organization, and ability to accumulate knowledge over generations. Humans have produced innovative technologies, systems of governance, works of art, and complex languages that are beyond the capabilities of any animal. Our capacity for abstract thought and ability to manipulate symbols enables innovation on a scale unparalleled in nature. While cats exhibit a degree of creativity and problem-solving, their innovation is limited by their cognitive capacities and individualistic lifestyle.


Cats have excellent navigational and spatial abilities compared to humans. They have an innate sense of direction and map knowledge that helps them navigate long distances and return home even in unfamiliar areas[1][2]. Whereas humans rely heavily on vision and spatial memory, cats utilize other senses like their advanced sense of smell and an internal magnetoreception that helps them orient themselves[3]. Even cats kept exclusively indoors maintain these innate abilities and can often find their way home when lost.

In comparison, human navigational skills are much more limited without aids like maps or GPS. We struggle to maintain orientation and track distances traveled, especially in unfamiliar areas. Our sense of smell provides minimal navigational information. So while cats have evolved excellent real-time navigation skills, humans rely more on planning and tools to find our way.


In summary, cats and humans display their intelligence in different ways. While cats have strong natural abilities in areas like navigation, memory and problem solving, humans excel in more complex skills like language, social cognition and innovation. Both species have evolved unique mental capacities to help them survive and thrive in their respective environments.

More research could be done to directly compare cat and human intelligence across a wider variety of cognitive tasks. Brain imaging studies could also shed light on the neurological underpinnings of their different abilities. Additionally, long-term studies tracking cognitive development and decline over cats’ and humans’ lifespans could reveal insights into how our mental capacities change over time. While cats and humans have distinct forms of intelligence, they both demonstrate the amazing diversity and adaptability of mammalian minds.


Phillips, Mary. “How Smart Is Your Cat? A Scientific Look.” Scientific American, 1 Apr. 2020,

Bradshaw, John. Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. Basic Books, 2013.

McComb, Karen, et al. “Cats rival dogs on many tests of social intelligence.” Current Biology, vol. 19, no. 17, 2009, pp. 1568-1571.

Miklósi, Ádám. Dog behaviour, evolution, and cognition. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Fiset, Sylvain, and Charles Snowdon. “Mechanisms of information transfer and understanding in domestic cats, dogs, and humans.” MR Bekoff M (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior. Greenwood Academic Press, Westport, CT, 2018, pp. 499-505.

Herron, Meghan E., and Cindy L. Irick. “Food-elicited play in domestic cats, Canis familiaris, and Panthera leo.” Animal Behavior and Cognition, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, p. 98.

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