Cat Intelligence Smart and Sassy Kitties Title

Photo Credit: Found Animals Foundation via Flickr

Cat intelligence is highly underrated by people who have never had a special kitty in their lives. Cat owners know that cats can be too smart for their own good. They are expert hunters and learn quickly how to make mischief around the house. Scientists are beginning to believe that we are nowhere near learning all there is to know about cat intelligence.

The Feline Brain

The feline brain is remarkably like our own. In appearance, the feline brain looks like a simpler, mini human brain. All of the major structures of the human brain are also present in the feline brain;

  • Cat Intelligence Cat and Human Brains

    Photo Credit: lecerveau.mcgill.ca via Wikimedia Commons

    Cerebrum –  thinking, reason, perception of stimuli, and emotions

  • Cerebellum – regulation of  movement and balance
  • Medulla Oblongata –   regulation vital functions such as heartbeat and breathing
  • Spinal Cord – vital in sending messages to the brain from the body and vice versa
  • Pons –  motor control and understanding sensory stimuli
  • Olfactory Bulb– associated with the sense of smell
  • Saggital Fissure – separates the right and the left hemispheres of the Cerebrum

Proportionally, a cat’s brain is only 0.9% of their body mass while a human’s brain is 2% of their body mass ( a dog’s is 1.2% of their body mass). Don’t let size fool  you when it comes to cat intelligence. A cat’s brain is very efficient for it’s needs.

A Cat’s Amazing Senses

If you use sensory abilities as a mark of cat intelligence, then cats are rivals with the smartest of us all. Cats have all 5 of the same senses that humans do; sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Their senses are incredibly fine tuned. Cats do not see as much detail or color in images as we do, but they can spot the slightest movements easily and see in situations that are 6-8 times darker than what we can see in.

Cat Intelligence Cinco's Closeup by Robin Mudge

A few of Cinco’s senses hard at work.

A cat’s hearing is nothing short of amazing. The shape of their ears can amplify sounds to be 4 times louder than humans hear them. With a range of 45 Hz – 64,000Hz, they can hear frequencies far lower and higher that both humans (64 Hz – 23,000 Hz) and dogs (67 Hz – 45,000 Hz)!

Dogs are the only ones with a powerful nose! Cats can smell 14 times better than humans can. They have 80 million smell receptors! Cats don’t just use their nose, they also have a cool little thing call the Jacobson’s Organ (or the Vomeronasal Organ) in their mouth that helps them detect smell.

A cat’s whiskers bring its sense of touch to a whole  new level. Don’t ever cut your cat’s whiskers! These are not like human hairs; They are deeply rooted and surrounded by muscles and very sensitive nerves. Whiskers can sense even slight breezes passing by. Using these, a cat can tell if it will fit through tight passages.

Taste is probably the least remarkable of all of the cat’s senses. However, their limited sense of taste doesn’t mean limited cat intelligence. This lack of taste makes perfect sense for obligate carnivores. There are two proteins necessary to taste “sweet” tastes; Tas1r2 and Tas1r3. Cats lack the Tas1r2 protein which leaves them unable to detect sweet tastes. However, some scientists believe that some cats may be able to pick up on sweet tastes from substances with highly concentrated sugar. That being said, cats can taste something that we can’t – Adenosine Triphosphate ( a meat related taste).

Tests of Cat Intelligence

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Cat intelligence is based on the needs of cats and not the needs of humans, dogs, or any other species of animal. Tests which compare cat intelligence with dog intelligence or human intelligence tend to neglect that fact.

Cinco Opens Cupboard

Cinco being sassy and opening the kitchen cabinets (like he does every night).

Cats are introverted animals which, in the wild, tend to hunt alone and have very loose social structures. Tests which expect a cat to respond to a stimulus in which social status is a factor (“do this to be the best”, “do this to please me”, etc) tend not to be effective in measuring cat intelligence. A cat responds to stimuli which represent its interests in an efficient way.  When a cat does not pass a maze test (in which a treat is waiting at the other end of the maze) it is not because it can’t complete the maze. The cat just doesn’t see a reason why it should complete the maze to get the food.

It has been proven that cat’s have a high degree of Object Permanence as defined by psychologist Jean Piaget. Only creatures of high intelligence ever develop this skill. Someone who has not achieved Object Permanence believes that when something is no longer in their field of vision (or detected by their other senses) that is has ceased to exist. Cats, on the other hand, will look for (and expect to find) an object that has been hidden, which  proves that they have achieved a high degree of Object Permanence.

In the 1940’s Edward Thorndike did a series of experiments to see how cats learn. He would place a hungry cat in a cage-like box that had handles, pulls, levers or a combination of these that needed to be manipulated for the door to open. A nice piece of fish would be waiting for the cat just out of reach. The cats successfully were able to figure out how to open these doors. Some of them even require doing actions in a particular order or pushing one thing while pulling another. When placed in the box a second time, the cats would remember what they had done before and quickly learn to open the box again.

In a later experiment, American psychologist Professor Jules Masserman learned not to underestimate cat intelligence. His experiment was actually rather cruel and was testing the effect of alcoholism on cats and how they make choices. As a part of the experiment, he placed cats into a cage where a trigger had to be pressed in order for the cats to receive their food. The cats quickly learned how to get at the food and how to cheat the machine! The cats actually made conscious actions to jam the trigger, which forced the machine to feed them continually.

Have you ever been surprised by something really intelligent that your pet did?

Sources & Digging Deeper

Mapping the Feline Brain: How Smart is Your Cat? – PetMD

Cat’s Brain (Anatomy) – Erika Campbell

See the World Through the Eyes of a Cat – Pop Science

Object Permanence and Working Memory in Cats  (Felis Catus) – S. Goulet et al

Edward Thorndike – Simply Psychology

Very Human Cats – The Alternative Doctor