Cats often surprise us by performing diverse tasks that seem beyond their capabilities. When they gaze at us, it appears as if they're trying to communicate in their own meowgical way. The lingering mystery around our independent furriends leads to an inevitable wonder: just how smart are they?

A look inside a cat’s brain

On average, a brain of a domestic cat is about 5 centimeters long with a weight of 25-30 grams (Roth & Dicke, 2005). This adds up to around 0,91% of their total body mass. In comparison, the human brain accounts for approximately 2,33% of total body mass and for the canine brain, about 1,2% (Freberg, 2009). However, it is important to note that the relative brain size is not the sole indicator of intelligence. The surface folding and the brain structure are highly important factors too.

Interestingly, the feline brain’s surface structure highly resemblances that in humans. Both brains are gyrencephalic (with surface folding) and have cerebral cortices with similar lobes (Mann, 1979 & CatWatch, 2010). Cerebral cortex is the part of the brain involved in memory, cognition, awareness, perception, learning and consciousness. Cats have about 763 million of cortical neurons, with a particularly developed primary visual cortex with 51,400 neurons per mm3 (Ananthanarayanan et al, 2009 & Solnick et al, 1984).

Furthermore, feline brain is highly specialized and divided into many interconnected areas for specialized tasks. This allows our felines to construct a complex perception of the world and react to and manipulate the surrounding environment.

Feline intelligence

Their intelligence is often defined as the ability of adaptation to environmental changes and problem solving. How intelligent are cats? To no surprise, describing feline cognition is not an easy task. While we can’t asses IQ tests to measure feline or canine intelligence, we do understand cognition in dogs a lot better than in cats. This is simply because dogs are more likely to cooperate with us.

Report by David Grimm at Slate explains that, Christian Agrillo, a comparative psychologist at the University of Padova in Italy and Ádám Miklós, an ethologist from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, have both reported difficulties while working with cats. They both found it challenging to study cats due to their stubborness and Miklós eventually decided to visit the cat’s homes rather than bringing them over, as they refused to cooperate otherwise.

According to successfully conducted studies, however, we do now know that cats have developed complete sensorimotor intelligence. They fully possess the concept of object permanence – the ability to comprehend the existence of an object even when it can no longer be perceived (Triana, 1981). Furthermore, Agrillo and Miklós tried to describe two aspects of feline cognition. Agrillo has studied and described feline numerical competence, the ability to distinguish quantities. He explained to Grimm that cats tend to pay more attention to the size of the dots rather than the number. They are therefore more concerned about size than quantity. This is completely understandable, considering the lifestyle of wild cats who survive by hunting and often live alone.

via GIPHY

Miklós, on the other side, conducted a comparative study between cats and dogs in efforts to describe feline problem solving. Grimm reports: “He [Miklós] and his colleagues created two puzzles: one solvable, the other impossible. In the solvable puzzle, the researchers placed food in a bowl and stuck it under a stool. Dogs and cats had to find the bowl and pull it out to eat. Both aced the test. Then the scientist rigged the exam. They again placed the bowl under a stool, but this time they tied it to the stool legs so that it could not be pulled out. The dogs pawed at the bowl for a few seconds and then gave up, gazing up at their owners as if asking for help. The cats, on the other hand, rarely looked at their owners; they just kept trying to get the food.” This indicates that dogs know when and where they should look for help (which is admirable), while cats tend to remain a lot more independent. Considering that they have been domesticated for a lot shorter time period than dogs, it is understandable that they are less dependent on us.

Feline memory and learning

Cats have an exceptional ability to store short and long-term memory which makes it possible for them to learn. While their memory can be affected by different factors, cats can use memories of past experiences in efforts to adapt to new situations. It has also been proven that cats learn exceptionally well by observing others resolving an issue. They seem to learn the fastest when observing their mothers (Chesler, 1969). Furthermore, cats are highly successful in regard to their trainability too. Training a cat seems to be a little more difficult than training a dog, primarily due to their independence and short attention span. However, there are numerous successful examples of cats mastering advanced skills and tricks. Although it may appear challenging at times, working with cats is highly important. It helps make them more social, less anxious and overall more content. Here are a few tips that can get you started on the journey of traning a cat.

We all know very well that our purrfect companions are highly intelligent. We also know that their persistent independence and stubbornness only adds to their mysterious charm. Hopefully, though, science will soon be able to tell us more about the feline cognition because we are thirsty for cat knowledge! Do you have any pawsome examples of cat intellect? Don’t shy away and do share about your super pet with us. Meow!

Sources and further reading:

1. Ananthanarayanan R, Esser SK, Simon HD, Modha DS. (2009). The cat is out of the bag: cortical simulations with 109 neurons, 1013 synapses. Proceedings of the Conference on High Performance Computing Networking, Storage and Analysis – SC ’09: 1–12. doi:10.1145/1654059.1654124

2. Cat Watch. (2010). How Smart is Your Cat? Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

3. Chesler, P. (1969). Maternal Influence in Learning by Observation in Kittens. Science. 166 (390): 901–903. doi:10.1126/science.166.3907.901.

4. Freberg L. (2009). Relative Encephalization Quotients. Discovering Biological Psychology. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-547-17779-3.

5. Mann, M (1979). Sets of neurons in somatic cerebral cortex of the cat and their ontogeny. Brain Research Reviews. 180 (1): 3–45. doi:10.1016/0165-0173(79)90015-8

6. Roth G, Dicke U. (2005). Evolution of the brain and intelligence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 9 (5): 250–7. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.03.005

7. Solnick B, Davis TL, Sterling P. (1984). Numbers of Specific Types of Neuron in Layer IVab of Cat Striate Cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 81 (12): 3898–900. doi:10.1073/pnas.81.12.3898.

8. Triana E. (1981). Object permanence in cats and dogs. Animal Learning & Behavior. 9(1):135-139. doi:10.3758/bf03212035.