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Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs? Pet Intelligence Explained (Vet-Approved)

Beth Crane

By Beth Crane

dog and scottish fold cat sitting beside each other in the snow

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Dr. Chyrle Bonk

DVM (Veterinarian)

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Whether you’re a cat person or a dog person (or both!), the research on animal intelligence is always fascinating. Cats can learn tricks like dogs can, and dogs can be more or less independent depending on the breed and how they were raised. However, there isn’t one true winner in the battle of the brains, at least not in a way we can measure.

hepper cat paw divider

Differences in the Number of Neurons

It’s quite difficult to determine which species is more or less intelligent, as you must first determine exactly what intelligence means to you. In terms of sheer brain power, dogs appear to be the winners. A study into the canine mind has shown that dogs have twice as many neurons (brain cells) as cats.1

Dogs have around 530 million neurons, while cats have 250 million. This would serve to mean that dogs are more capable of complex behavior, with the ability to be more flexible with how they approach and carry out tasks. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re twice as smart! Having more neurons doesn’t mean they’re using more neurons.

scottish fold cat and yorkshire terrier dog on the bed
Image Credit: Irina Magrelo, Shutterstock

Species-Specific Intelligence

Think about it this way: if you presented a dog with a scratching post and asked them to sharpen their nails, they’ll probably have a good sniff but ultimately fail the task. However, a cat will likely stretch and scratch within a short amount of time. The same is true for doggy tasks such as catching a frisbee or tracking a scent.

The same goes for hunting–it’s hard to beat a cat’s hunting behaviors, but most cats find it difficult to do tricks for treats. Does that mean that one is smarter than the other? It simply means that each species has honed their intelligence for things that are important for their survival and that it can be hard to compare intelligence across species.

Interacting With Humans

There have been other studies looking into aspects of cat and dog behavior that show that the difference between the two may not be as pronounced as their neurons might show. A study that looked at the social intelligence of cats determined that cats preferred the company of humans over other important things, such as toys and even food!

While cats are often labeled as aloof or described as only doing things “when it benefits them,” cats enjoy interactions with their owners potentially as much as dogs do. Another study explored how well cats and dogs could interpret a human pointing at food hidden behind an object.

The person would use pointing to gesture to the cat or dog and indicate where food was, and the study found that there was no significant difference between how well cats and dogs performed the task. However, the study did find that dogs were better at gesturing back to humans!

woman sitting on the sofa with her dog and cat
Image Credit: Gerain0812, Shutterstock

Emotional Intelligence

Another way intelligence is measured is through emotions and how animals comprehend them. Owners seem to think that dogs are likelier to express emotion than cats are; a study conducted using 22 emotions concluded that owners who owned dogs, cats, or both thought that dogs were more capable of expressing emotions.

There is more research on canine emotions than there is on cats, but the general consensus is that both cats and dogs can feel basic emotions. Both animals can express joy, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust!

However, a study conducted in 2020 has determined that cats feel emotions and are also able to recognize emotions in others (both cats and humans). They’ll even regulate their behavior following what they see, which shows a high level of intelligence. The same is true for dogs, which was researched in similar studies.

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Final Thoughts

Dogs versus cats is an age-long debate, but when it comes to intelligence, the winner is not very clear. Dogs have more neurons than cats, leading some to label them more intelligent. However, animal intelligence is measured in different ways in different species, and how humans interpret that intelligence can also have a profound effect on the result.

Although dogs have more neurons, cats and dogs are similarly intelligent in other ways. Enjoying your pet and all the love they give you is the most important thing, even if they try to be a know-it-all!

Featured Image Credit: valery.kruk, Shutterstock

Beth Crane

Authored by

Beth is a mom to two babies: one with four legs, and one with two. Beth has years of practical experience as a veterinary care assistant, working in both the operating room and in consult, expanding her knowledge to gain certification in her favorite subject: feline behavior and well-being! When she's not writing about her favorite topics (cats, dogs, and creature comforts), she's looking after her two-year-old daughter a...Read more

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