To woof or to meow? That is the question!
And that’s also a question humans have been going back and forth on since the beginning of time itself. Depending which era of history you review, either cats or dogs come out on top. Ancient Egyptians treasured their cats, as did sailors, while the ancient Chinese revered dogs for their hunting abilities and loyalty.
All-told, humans have enjoyed a relationship with both creatures spanning back well over 30,000 years into the past. Now, one study is bringing new life to the debate.
One of the biggest questions to arise in this debate just happens to be which animal is smarter. Is it the dog, who can learn tricks or even sometimes count? Or is it the cat, who also learns tricks but also demonstrates a unique emotional intelligence? Certainly, both animals demonstrate intelligence; that’s a fact we just can’t deny. But is there a difference in intelligence quotient? If so, how can we know
For the answer to this age-old question, we turned to science. As luck would have it, we found one recent study that confirms our suspicions: it’s the dog!B
Study Information & Basics
The study in question was conducted by six of North America’s best animal researchers, including Associate Professor of Psychology Suzana Herculano-Houzel, in her lab at Vanderbilt University. Rather than studying simple behavior, the six researchers involved looked at actual brain matter within the cerebral cortex. What they were looking for was some evidence of a volume or structural difference that could tell them once and for all which was the more intelligent of the two.
That’s exactly what they found. The average cat has around 250 million neurons within the cortex; in comparison, the average 15-pound mixed-breed dog had around 429 million neurons instead.
Wait – what’s a neuron?
A neuron is essentially a type of processing cell; it is directly responsible for processing information within the brain. Each neuron works in a network with other neurons to provide an information superhighway that processes nerve impulses. Neurons control everything we do, from how we feel to how we move and even how we handle complex problem-solving (like math).B
When researchers looked at the Golden Retriever, results were even more astounding. Unlike the cat, it had approximately 627 million neurons – significantly more brainpower for processing information.
Carnivores & Brain Intelligence
Researchers also compared neurons present in cortexes from dogs and cats with cortexes present in other animals classified as carnivorans (all carnivores). The study looked at the ferret, the banded mongoose, the raccoon, the hyena, the lion and the brown bear.
Results showed that at least one previously-held belief wasn’t true; larger brains and/or animal mass didn’t automatically result in a higher number of neurons being present in the cortex. Thus, bigger animals weren’t necessarily smarter. In fact, larger animals were more likely to have a lower neuron-to-cortex ratio than their smaller cousins.
This finding was also true when researchers compared herbivores like the ibex with the savannah-like apex predator, the lion. Surprisingly, the ibex topped out the lion with 571 million neurons, while the lion had just 545 million instead. Researchers knew, from this finding alone, that higher intelligence couldn’t possibly be linked to carnivorous classification or sheer body size alone, nor was carnivorous status a sure-fire recipe for higher intelligence.
One surprising finding also showed that the bear and the cat had a very similar neuron volume numbers when compared side by side. Researchers believe this may be attributed to yearly hibernation, which significantly lowers brain processing power to conserve energy.
The research team also surmised that hunting difficulties or restrictions may further impact an animal’s ability to develop high-intelligence neuron counts. A bear who hibernates for a portion of the year goes without food for nearly just as long, creating a caloric deficit for at least a portion of the year. Likewise, a carnivore who needs to hunt almost constantly to stay alive expends much more energy than one who does not. This could explain why animals like the ferret have just 39 million in comparison.
The Doggy Difference
“Okay,” you’re thinking. “But a dog isn’t a ferret, nor a lion, nor a bear. Nor does it hunt.”
You’re correct – and that’s something researchers touched on as a possible reason for the dog’s increased neuron volume. Dogs don’t really hunt (catching a mouse off-hand outside doesn’t count), they don’t roam the wilds, nor do they struggle to access calories (at least when they’re well-cared-for). And they certainly don’t hibernate, even if they demonstrate seemingly similar behavior when they’re sacked out in your bed and you want them to move.
Instead, dogs live a fairly cushy life with more starchy foods than their wild cousins, the wolf or the wild dog. And that very well may be why they have so many neurons; because they aren’t forced into survival mode daily, their evolutionary process is adapting to better fit their lives with humans.
Curious how you measure up to your cat or dog? Researchers measured that, too. Your very own brain has up to 16 billion neurons in comparison to 250 million for cats and 500 million (give or take a few million) for dogs.
What Do the Results Mean?
We now can say confidently that dogs are more intelligent than cats. But what does this finding mean in the real world? Does it change how we care for our find companionship in our dogs? Does it mean that dogs naturally make the better pet for every prospective pet parent? And, perhaps more importantly, does it change how we approach training, discipline, and behavioral concerns in our dogs?
The biggest takeaway from this study is that we may be underestimating what our dogs are capable of. In an interview with CNN, Herculano-Houzel said, “Our findings mean to me that dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can.” This could potentially change how we train and approach canine care, but those changes aren’t likely to become obvious after just this study alone.
Zoologist Sarah Benson-Amram of the University of Wyoming in Laramie cautions against assuming the results mean your dog is a genius; instead, she sees the study as a prompt for further investigation. “It shows us that there’s a lot more out there that we need to study to really be able to understand the evolution of brain size and how it relates to cognition.”
As for cats, just because they don’t have the same number of neurons doesn’t mean they don’t have their own form of intelligence. Hide a bag of TEMPTATIONS™ Treats inside a closed basket and you will see this brain power in action – they’ll get to the treats even if it takes them a while to figure out how to work the basket. If you have a cat who knows how to open doors, turn on the faucet, fetch, or do tricks, you are seeing the same intelligence in action.