How Smart Is My Cat? Cat Intelligence and How We Measure It

Stephanie Ariganello
4 min
How Smart Is My Cat? Cat Intelligence and How We Measure It

Looking at the top cat intelligence research categories, how does your cat measure up?

While you watch your cat attempt the “If I fits, I sits” approach to settling into a box that is far too small, your first thought might not be: my furry genius! However, cats are clearly clever. They’ve figured out how to get into our homes and hearts, how to run the internet, and, well — if you’re reading this, how to get us to think about them even when they’re not demanding anything from us.

Measuring Smarts

Animal intelligence has always been a difficult thing to assess. Researchers have used different methods to get at the core of the question. From counting brain cells of different species to testing how easily animals are trained, the classic approaches to measuring intelligence have evolved over the years, but still leave wide gaps in the knowledge.

That said, when it comes to measuring animal intelligence, cats are a breed of their own. As we know, cats are fiercely independent and by some speculation, domesticated themselves. This means they don’t aim to please like dogs do. That makes them especially difficult creatures to assess. One animal behaviorist reportedly tried a single experiment with cats. Working with felines was so challenging, he gave up after that experiment and moved on to studying fish.

What Is Cat Intelligence?

Measuring animal intelligence seems to have two separate drivers: researchers and pet owners. Pet owners are happy to regale others with the clever exploits of their favorite fur children (and we’re happy to hear them!). Cats figuring out how to open doors, dogs retrieving their favorite toys by name — whatever it might be, we know there is more to our animal companions than we’ve been able to pin down.

But when it comes to research? There’s still a few things to figure out.

The Science Behind Measuring Cat Intelligence

Science is mixed when it comes to cat intelligence. Some researchers give cats credit for having a grasp on basic physics. Other experts doubt that cats understand that things exist when they’re not directly in sight.

“I am not so sure about scientifically, but I can say that my own cat is very aware that she is not allowed on the counters,” says Kristin Wilson, DVM, a veterinarian and owner of Arbor Hills Animal Clinic in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “But she is also very aware that if I am sitting on the couch, I am unlikely to get up to do anything about it.”

Research published November 2015 in Animal Cognition notes that most cat intelligence research focuses on one of the following categories:

  • Object permanence and memory: Object permanence generally means animals can understand that an item still exists even though it may be hidden from view. Memory is typically tested as short-term, showing a cat a ball in a basket, distracting it for up to a minute, and then asking it to call back that knowledge with an action. Cats perform well on memory tests up to about 30 seconds. #Relatable.
  • Physical cause and effect: Understanding that if I do this thing, this other thing happens. Anyone who has been awoken by a casual, let-me-knock-your-phone-off-the-nightstand-to-get-your-attention move has seen this in action. In addition to counter surfing, Dr. Wilson reported that her own cat has calculated another cause-and-effect. “She is not allowed outside, but has figured out that she has better success getting outside if she places herself in the middle of our pack of dogs.”
  • Understanding quantities and time: The experiment that broke the aforementioned researcher had to do with getting cats to count. Turns out, cats could distinguish numbers, they just didn’t care. And anyone who is a few minutes late getting food into the bowl knows cats have internal clocks to rival the Japanese Rail system.
  • Sensitivity to human cues: Cats do pay attention to their humans, especially when rewards are involved. “Our ‘staff’ hospital cat figured out which of the eight staff members fed her the most, and began stalking her,” says Wilson.
  • Communication: How many sounds does your cat make? Can you tell what they want? Thought so.
  • Attachment to people: Felines are often compared to dogs, and generally unfavorably so in the attachment department. Dogs, it seems, are the golden lab (see what we did there?) standard for attachment to humans. Yet, more recent research has shown that cats demonstrate attachment in different ways. For example, they have been known to soothe a person who is anxious or stressed by spending time together and purring to help aid healing.
  • Personality: A lot of this simply relies on the individual cat. Some breeds are thought to rank higher in the intelligence category, such as European Burmese, but there is no evidence to support such claims.

So how does your cat measure up? Whether your feline friend seems to score high in certain cat intelligence research categories or not, your cat has likely already made it to CEO status in your household — and that has say something.

Written by:
Stephanie Ariganello