Is Your Cat Smarter Than You Think?


Cats are known for being independent, mysterious creatures. Their intelligence has long fascinated humans, but how smart are cats compared to other animals? This article will explore what science tells us about feline intelligence. We’ll look at the structure of the cat brain, complex cat behaviors like hunting and problem solving, their communication abilities, observational skills, memory capacity, and how cats learn. We’ll also compare cats to dogs in terms of intelligence and discuss which animal researchers believe may be the smartest of all.

Cat Brain Structure

A cat’s brain is structured similarly to a human brain but on a smaller scale. The average cat brain is about the size of an orange, while the average human brain is about the size of a small melon. However, size does not directly correlate with intelligence. What matters is the brain’s structure and how efficient it is.

Cats have a large and well-developed cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain responsible for cognitive information processing like memory, attention, perception, and decision making. According to Wikipedia, the cat cortex makes up about 50-60% of the total brain mass, similar to the cortex percentage in primates.

Studies have found that cats have over 300 million neurons in their cerebral cortex alone. Their visual cortex and sensory cortex are both large compared to other mammals. Cats also have a complex hippocampus, vital for memory and spatial awareness. All of these advanced brain structures allow cats to excel at learning, problem solving, and visual recognition.

While a cat’s brain is much smaller than a human’s, it is organized efficiently. Cats have excellent sensory abilities, complex cognition, and adaptability that demonstrate their innate intelligence stemming from an advanced brain structure.

Complex Cat Behaviors

Cats exhibit many complex behaviors that demonstrate their intelligence and ability to solve problems. For example, cats are able to learn how to open doors by observing humans and through trial and error. According to a study by researchers at Kyoto University, cats were able to learn to open a door by watching humans do it only a few times, then replicating the process on their own [1]. Cats have also been known to open door knobs, handles, and even sliding doors in order to access desired areas.

In lab experiments, cats have demonstrated the ability to learn puzzles and tasks. Researchers have trained cats to pull levers and discriminate between objects to get rewards [2]. Cats can learn to retrieve objects and navigate mazes. One study found cats could learn to associate pieces of paper with food after only 2-8 repetitions [3]. Their ability to retain memories of these learned behaviors shows their intelligence.

In the home, cat owners have observed their pets doing complex things like opening cupboards, unlocking doors, turning on faucets, and figuring out how to open packaging. While cats take a more independent approach to problem solving compared to dogs, their curiosity and persistence allow them to perform impressively smart behaviors.

Cat Communication Skills

Cats communicate in many complex ways, primarily through body language and vocalizations. A cat’s body posture, facial expressions, tail motions, and ear positions all convey meaning. For example, an alert cat with ears rotated forward is interested in something, while a fearful cat may have ears flattened back (The Definitive Guide to Cat Behavior and Body Language). Cats also vocalize with meows, purrs, growls, chirps and more. Meowing can communicate a wide range of messages from the cat, depending on the context (Cat Body Language: 34 Ways Your Cat Is Communicating).

In addition to conveying meaning to other cats, domestic cats have adapted their communication methods for interacting with humans. Cats learn to vocalize in unique ways to get their human’s attention and communicate their desires. Their body language also translates surprisingly well to humans, who can learn to interpret a cat’s posture, ear and tail signals. A cat purring and rubbing against its owner is clearly conveying affection. With experience, humans can learn to understand various cat communications and signals.

Cat Observational Skills

Cats are excellent observers and can learn by watching. Cats use observational learning to acquire new behaviors and skills by watching other cats or even humans.

For example, a kitten may observe its mother hunting mice and then try the same technique on its own. Kittens also learn appropriate cat social behaviors like grooming from observing their mothers. Additionally, cats can learn tricks like jumping through hoops by watching humans demonstrate the trick and then mimicking it. According to Bengal Cat Training Guide, observational learning allows cats to expand their behavioral repertoires without trial-and-error or reinforcement.

Some key examples of cat observational learning skills include:

  • Learning to open doors or windows by watching humans
  • Learning to use a human toilet by observing bathroom habits
  • Retrieving items or playing fetch after watching humans throw objects

Overall, cats are adept at observational learning. Their ability to acquire new skills by carefully observing others is one reason why cats are such smart and adaptable animals.

– Cats have good memory skills

Cats are known to have excellent memory abilities, with both strong short-term and long-term memory capacity. Studies have shown that cats are able to remember episodic memories, or memories associated with events and experiences, as well as spatial memories related to location and navigation. These memory skills allow cats to remember important aspects of their environment and daily routines.

A cat’s short-term memory allows it to remember specific events over a period of 16 hours. This helps them recall things like the location of food bowls, litter boxes, preferred napping spots, and their owner’s schedule and habits. In experimental studies, cats could remember which side of a T-shaped maze had a food reward up to 16 hours later.

In addition to short-term memory, cats are capable of remembering events, people, and places from months or even years earlier thanks to their strong long-term memory. Some cat owners report their cats appeared to remember them after absences of 3-4 years. Evidence also indicates cats can remember traumatic experiences, like abuse, for many years afterward. Overall, cats display an impressive capacity to form long-lasting memories.


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How Cats Learn

Cats are highly intelligent animals capable of learning a variety of skills through proper conditioning and reinforcement. Much like dogs, cats can be trained to perform certain behaviors on command. According to the BPS, cats primarily learn through associative learning techniques like operant conditioning ( This involves using consequences to modify a cat’s voluntary behaviors. For example, clicker training is a popular operant conditioning method used to teach cats commands like “sit” or “shake.” The clicker serves as a reward marker to reinforce desired actions.

Cats can also learn through classical conditioning or pairing stimuli and responses. For instance, a cat may associate the sound of a can opener with getting fed. With continued repetition, the can opener sound becomes a conditioned stimulus that causes the cat to respond by running to its food bowl. Understanding these learning principles allows owners to better train cats using rewards, targets, lures and other positive reinforcement techniques ( While independent, cats are highly capable of learning new skills and behaviors when properly motivated.

Cats vs. Dogs

When it comes to cat and dog intelligence, there are some key differences. Dogs tend to have higher social intelligence and are often easier to train than cats. However, cats excel at independent problem solving and have shown superior spatial navigation abilities (

Cats have around 300 million neurons compared to dogs’ 160 million, suggesting a higher capacity for information processing in felines ( Studies have found that cats can interpret human facial expressions and recognize their owner’s voice, whereas dogs rely more on gestures and tone of voice.

In tests of memory and problem solving, cats have outperformed dogs in some areas. For example, cats only need to be shown an object or route once to remember it, while dogs required multiple repetitions. However, dogs tend to obey commands better and are eager to please their owners through training.

In summary, cats and dogs have different strengths when it comes to intelligence. Cats excel at independent thinking, spatial awareness and memory, while dogs are better at social cognition, communication with humans, and following instruction. There are signs that cats have greater raw information processing power in their brains, but dogs are more adept at social skills.

Smartest Animal

There are various ways scientists measure intelligence in animals, but some of the key metrics include:

Self-awareness – Animals that recognize themselves in mirrors, like chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants, are considered highly intelligent and self-aware. Cats do not pass the mirror test. [1]

Memory – Animals with good memories, like chimpanzees that can remember number sequences or cats that know their way around complex environments, are seen as intelligent. Cats have excellent spatial memory. [2]

Problem-solving – Animals that use tools or solve puzzles, like crows that shape twigs into hooks to get food, demonstrate intelligence through logical thinking and reasoning. Cats are good problem-solvers in interacting with their environment. [3]

When it comes to cats versus dogs, there is much debate. Dogs seem better at learning commands, social cooperation and causality. But cats have more independence, solve problems more flexibly, observe more keenly, and have better spatial navigation. Overall intelligence likely depends on the animal’s evolutionary niche, so declaring one species “smartest” is difficult.


After reviewing the evidence, it’s clear that cats possess several intelligent behaviors and skills. Their complex social structures, ability to problem solve, capacity for learning through observation, and impressive memory capabilities point to a high level of intelligence compared to many animals.

However, definitively concluding whether cats are the “smartest” animal is challenging for several reasons. First, intelligence is difficult to measure and compare across different species. Second, there are many metrics and types of intelligence, including emotional intelligence, spatial intelligence, etc. Finally, a number of other animals like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and even dogs display intelligent abilities that could rival those of cats.

Based on the specific metrics discussed around social intelligence, communication, observational learning, memory and problem solving, cats do appear to have a high level of intelligence compared to most domesticated animals. However, claiming they are definitively the “smartest” animal is likely an overstatement, as there are many complex facets of intelligence that other animals may exceed in. The evidence shows cats are clearly smart and unique creatures, but not necessarily the smartest animal overall.

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