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5 Cat Cognition Facts

By Helen Anne Travis

When it comes to understanding how our pets think, much more research has been done on the minds of dogs than cats. But that doesn’t mean we’re completely clueless about cat cognition.

Here are five facts we do know about how our cats understand and interpret the world. Heads up: they’re smarter than you might think.

Cats’ Brains Work a Lot Like Ours

If you want to compare cats’ brains to those of dogs or humans, you’ll find a lot more similarities than differences, says Dr. Jill Sackman, head of behavior medicine service at BluePearl Veterinary Partners.

As mammals, we all have similar brain structures and functions, she explains. Like us, cats can sense the passing of time. They dream, she adds. And one study suggests cats can even count (or at least tell the difference between two dots and three if it means getting a food reward).

Cats can also develop cognitive dysfunction as they age, Sackman says. Just like humans.

Evolution Shaped How Cats’ Brains Work

Cats are unique in that they evolved to be predator and prey, says Dr. Franklin D. McMillan, director of well-being studies at Best Friends Animal Society. While dogs, and maybe even humans, evolved to hunt, cats had to learn to hunt and hide. That’s why cats may be more fearful than dogs when encountering new situations or animals, he explains.

But in some ways, cats are more aggressive than dogs. It’s believed that dogs started interacting with humans around 20,000 years ago, McMillan says. Cats, on the other hand, have only been cohabiting with humans for 10,000 years, according to a 2013 study. Some studies consider cats to be only semi-domesticated.

Think of a cat’s favorite toys: feathers on a stick, strings pulled slowly across the floor, a soft toy they can wrestle. In the wild, cats spend up to four hours per day trying to find food, McMillan says. Once they’re eating from a can and don’t have to hunt, they still like toys that mimic prey. Dogs on the other hand can be content simply interacting with humans, he says. They don’t need to chew and pounce to have a good time.

McMillan encourages pet parents to nurture their cat’s inner predator. “We want to do something that helps their brain achieve what it evolved to do,” he says.

Cats Know What You’re Thinking

Just because cats want to kill and destroy their toys doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy hanging out with humans. In fact, one recent study went as far as suggesting that cats prefer spending time with people to eating food.

Cats are more likely to interact with their owners than a stranger, Sackman says, and can even form separation anxiety when their owners leave for extended periods of time. They can sense our emotions and distinguish information from our vocal patterns, she adds. They may also understand human pointing gestures, a 2005 study shows.

“They’re social but not social in the way dogs and humans are,” Sackman says.

One big difference between the way cats and dogs interact with humans is that dogs expect us to help them, she says. If there is food just out of reach, dogs will look to their owners, as if expecting their humans to help them get the grub. Cats, on the other hand, don’t seek out this eye contact, she says, which may mean they don’t understand that we could help them out.

Cats Can Learn and Remember

Like humans, cats can learn from observation, Sackman says. They can pick up information by watching another cat, animal, or human.

They have a working memory of about 30 seconds, Sackman says—long enough to stalk a lizard. They also have long-term memory, which is why they remember you after you’ve been on vacation for a week or two.

Those who have fond memories of being greeted by a childhood pet long after leaving home may argue that cats’ long-term memory can go back years.

Cats Can Be Trained

When it comes to training, dogs get all the credit. But cats are also completely trainable, Sackman says. The key is to understand what motivates the individual cat and develop an appropriate reward. She recommends clicker training, where the cat learns to associate the sound of a clicker with a tasty treat.

Clicker training is an effective way to encourage cats to stay off countertops, enter their carrier, and even give high fives.

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