By Matt Soniak
If you’ve ever watched your cat lying around and wondered what’s going on in that fuzzy little head of theirs, you’re not alone. Scientists who study animal cognition also want to know more about the minds of our pets, and while interest in this kind of research has been growing, we still have a lot to learn.
We’re in the middle of what science journalist David Grimm calls “a golden age of canine cognition,” with laboratories around the world dedicated to studying the minds of dogs. But there’s been comparatively little research on cat intelligence or how cats’ brains work. Part of the reason for this is that cats—as anyone who’s ever met one can tell you—can be a little difficult to work with.
For a book chapter on animal intelligence, Grimm had a hard time finding scientists that had done studies on feline cognition, and the few who had told him that many cats were uncooperative and often had to be removed from their studies.
As difficult as it’s been, scientists have been able to learn quite a bit about cats’ inner workings. Here are a few things they’ve figured out so far.
1. Cats can follow our signs.
While cats might not understand what you’re saying with your words, they can pick up on at least one thing you’re saying with your body. Researchers have found that cats can understand human pointing gestures and will follow them to find food.
In a 2005 study, scientists presented cats with two bowls, one of which had cat food in it (which the cats couldn’t see) and one that was empty. The cats were allowed to approach and choose one of the bowls while a researcher pointed at the bowl with the food in it. Nearly all of the cats followed the pointing cue, picked the correct cat bowl, and got the food reward. This suggests they have what scientists call “theory of mind”; that is, the ability to attribute knowledge, desires, intentions, etc., to others. In this case, Grimm says, the cats figured out that the pointing scientist was trying to show them something.
“Since cats have both been bred to be domestic and spend a lot of time with humans, we would expect them to pick up on human cues to some extent,” wrote animal behavior and cognition researchers Kristyn R. Vitale Shreve and Monique A. R. Udell in a review of the state of cat cognition research. “However, anyone who has owned a cat knows that they are not always as responsive as you might want them to be.”
2. Cats don’t fall for disappearing acts.
If an object strays out of sight—gets placed behind something else, for example, or put in a drawer—we know that it hasn’t ceased to exist but has merely been hidden from us. That concept, called “object permanence,” seems pretty basic for us, but not all animals (or even very young human babies) grasp it.
If your cat has ever chased a mouse or cat toys under a piece of furniture and then sat there waiting for it to reappear, you might have guessed that cats have a sense of object permanence. Researchers have demonstrated that cats can easily solve tests for object permanence and search for hidden objects in containers and behind obstacles where they disappeared.
This is a handy mental ability for cats to have as solitary hunters. “If prey disappears behind cover, obscuring the prey from view, cats would benefit from the ability to remember the location of the prey before its disappearance,” Vitale Shreve and Udell say.
If you want to test your cat (or dog) for object permanence, psychologist Clive Wynne has instructions for an experiment you can do at home.
3. Cat memories aren’t that great.
If Pixar had decided to make their forgetful Dory character a land animal instead of a fish, the domestic cat would have been a good choice.
Studies have found that cats’ ability to remember and use information for short periods, called working memory—tested by showing cats where a toy was placed and then having them find it after waiting different lengths of time—lasts around a minute, declining rapidly after just 10 seconds. (For comparison, dogs given the same test performed better and their working memory took longer to decline.)
However, cats’ long-term memories are more highly developed, Vitale Shreve and Udell say, but the memories can be affected by things like disease or age. One problem is an Alzheimer’s-like cognitive decline called Feline Cognitive Dysfunction (FCD) or Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS).
According to Cornell University’s Feline Health Center, cognitive dysfunction is the downside to cats living longer thanks to improvements in nutrition and advances in veterinary medicine. CDS is often noticeable in cats that are age 10 and older.
4. Cats have some concept of time and can tell more from less.
If your cats are like mine, they probably start bellowing for breakfast and dinner right around the same time each day. How do they know it’s time to eat? While there isn’t much research in this area, there is some evidence that cats can discriminate between different lengths of time.
In one study, researchers trained cats to eat from one of two bowls based on how long they were held in a cage before being released to eat, and the cats could tell the difference between holding periods of 5, 8, 10, and 20 seconds. That ability, Vitale Shreve and Udell say, implies that cats may have “an internal clock that is responsible for assessing the duration of events.”
In addition to knowing a longer length of time from a shorter one, cats appear to be able to tell a larger quantity of something from a smaller one. Scientists have found that cats can distinguish a group of two objects from a group of three, and use the larger group as a cue that there’s more food. As with object permanence, it makes sense that cats would have this mental skill if they want to maximize how much food they can acquire when hunting.
Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs?
While we still have a lot to learn about cats’ brains, how they think and how they perceive and interact with us and the world around them, it’s already clear that they have some amazing mental skills. But how do they stack up against our other beloved pet, the dog?
Answering that question is difficult, to say the least. There’s been much more cognitive research on dogs than cats, so we don’t have as full of an understanding of cat’s intelligence and cognitive abilities. What’s more, animals differ in size, behavior, and ability to be trained, so many experiments used in animal cognition research are designed differently for different species. A test that works with a cat might not work with a dog, or a bird, or a mouse, and you usually can’t make a fair apples-to-apples comparison between two species when the experiments are so different (some scientists have tested one aspect of cognition (self-control) in a way that you can compare results across species, but 1) that doesn’t really speak to intelligence, and 2) cats weren’t included in the study. So the jury is out on this one, and may be for some time.
Our advice for now? Think of both cats and dogs as smart and special in their own ways.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM.