Scientists Confirm That Cats a) Are Pretty Smart, b) Don’t Really Care What You Want

Cats’ impressive individuality makes it hard to study their smarts

Don Mason/Corbis

Yes, your cat is very special, and your dog is very cute. Millions of years of evolution, however—tens of thousands in the company of humans—have instilled cats and dogs with some particular traits and mental skills. And while cat people and dog people love to debate the superiority of their preferred pet, pet lovers who really want to compare and contrast species-wide superiority would do best to turn to the science of animal cognition.

One problem: According to David Grimm, writing at Slate, there's oodles of research on how dogs think. Not so for cats.

We are living in a golden age of canine cognition. Nearly a dozen laboratories around the world study the dog mind, and in the past decade scientists have published hundreds of articles on the topic. Researchers have shown that Fido can learn hundreds of words, may be capable of abstract thought, and possesses a rudimentary ability to intuit what others are thinking, a so-called theory of mindonce thought to be uniquely human.

There'd probably be more research on cats if they would just do what they were told for two seconds. But cats' famed aloofness extends even to the laboratory, Grimm says, and researchers' attempts to cajole cats into giving up a glimpse into their minds are blocked by cats' preferences to just be doing something else.

But, when the scientists did manage to convince the cats to play along, says Grimm, the cats performed “nearly as well as dogs had.”

So far, the research on cat and dog cognition has confirmed what pet owners already know: dogs are attentive and responsive (and needy); cats don't care what you want, and they don't want your help.

But which one is smarter?

Figuring that out, says science journalist Ed Yong, is not so simple.

Testing animal cognition is a tricky business, and comparing and contrasting across species lines, especially when distinct species-specific tests are used, is fraught territory. According to Yong, researchers are coming up with ways to test animals against each other in an apples-to-apples situation. That line of work is in its early stages, and so far they've only tested one metric—different animal's sense of self-control.

For now we don't have any clear answers about whether cats or dogs are smarter—or even how meaningful of a distinction that would be—let alone which is “better.”

Though it's obviously cats. Look at them.

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