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Mapping the Feline Brain: How Smart Is Your Cat?

Cats Are Smarter Than We Thought

By Dr. Lorie Huston, DVM

Have you ever wondered, when your cat looks at you or seems to be trying to communicate with you, exactly how smart your cat is? Have you seen your cat perform some behavior or task that seems like it should be beyond his capabilities?

Most people believe the brain is the center of intelligence. In terms of size, the brain of the cat accounts for approximately 0.9 percent of its body mass, compared to about 2 percent in an average human and about 1.2 percent in an average dog. Though the brain of a cat is comparatively smaller than that of other species, relative brain size isn’t always the best indicator of intelligence. And the cat brain shares some amazing similarities with our own brains.

The Cat Brain: A Look Inside

It appears that surface folding and brain structure matter more than brain size. The brains of cats have a surface folding and structure that is very similar to that of the human brain, about 90 percent similar to be more exact. Morphologically, both cat brains and human brains have cerebral cortices with similar lobes.

Further, a cat’s brain is separated into different areas that each perform specialized tasks. These areas are all interconnected and can easily and rapidly share information. This exchange of information gives your cat a valuable perception of his surrounding environment and allows him to react to and even manipulate his environment.

Do Cats Have Long-Term Memory?

The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and decision making. Cats have the ability to store both long-term and short-term memories. Memory is important because it shapes the ability to learn. Kittens learn survival skills such as hunting and grooming from observing and then copying their mother. They also learn social skills from playing with their litter mates. For cats, learning is a matter of practice makes perfect.

In the case of my cat, Dillon, memory and the powers of observation have made it possible for him to learn how to open the sliding door to the closet where his food is kept. One day I came home to find that not only had he opened the door, he had actually opened a hole in the food bag and helped himself to an additional meal. Since then, I’ve placed the bag inside a covered Tupperware container. Now, I find him lying on top of the Tupperware container, waiting for me to open it to feed him. He obviously has a good enough memory to realize that his food is in the container, even if he can’t access it, not to mention having figured out how to slide the door open so that he can gain entry.

There are many factors that may affect your cat’s memory. Diet is known to have a direct effect on memory and learning ability. Aging and disease can also have a negative effect on your cat’s memory. Just as in people, some cats are simply smarter than others and learn at a faster rate.

Despite the common misconception that cats are not trainable, they can indeed be trained to perform specific tasks, or even tricks. Clicker training is one potential method by which a cat can be trained. This form of training is a good example of operant conditioning, in which your cat learns a behavior through the use of a reward in response to the performance of the behavior.

Cat Training, Dreaming and More

Here are a couple of other interesting observations about your cat’s brain.

  • Cats do dream while they sleep. They undergo both REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. It is during REM sleep that your cat will dream. Have you ever noticed your cat twitching, switching his tail, raising his lip, or making other subtle movements or sounds while sleeping? It’s likely your cat is having a dream. This is normal behavior.
  • Cats have binocular vision, like humans. Because their vision is binocular, they are also able to perceive depth. This depth perception is, in part, what makes your cat a successful hunter and stalker.

How has your cat displayed his or her intelligence? Share your story in the comments.

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