Are dogs smarter than cats?

December 9, 2017 • 11:30 am

Yes, that’s the perennial question, and of course it depends on what you mean by “smarter”. Several people (mostly dog owners, of course) have sent me articles touting a recent finding that dogs are smarter than cats because they have more neurons in their brains. For example, this article reports a new article in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy (reference and free abstract at bottom; I haven’t read it as it hasn’t been published beyond the abstract).

“I believe the absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental state and their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on past experience,” says neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel from Vanderbilt University in the US.

Past studies have compared the ‘neural packing density’ in the brains of our favourite carnivorous pets, estimating that cats have about 300 million neurons, roughly doubling the 160 million of dogs.

But now it seems we might have been a little hasty handing the trophy to cats.

The team looked at eight different meat-eating animals, analysing one or two representative specimens of ferret, mongoose, raccoon, cat, dog, hyena, lion, and brown bear.

Based on their results, dogs have closer to 530 million neurons, compared to the 250 million of cats.

What’s more, dogs had the most neurons of any carnivore, even though they didn’t have the largest brains.

Sorry, but this is complete nonsense. Barring data showing that neuronal number has a very tight correlation with intelligence, barring widely accepted definitions of  animal “intelligence”, and barring “intelligence tests” on a diversity of species, all we know is what the paper reports: dogs have more neurons in their brains than do cats. And there could be reasons for that beyond intelligence, like, perhaps, olfaction.

The real way to see which animal is smarter is to devise some test that comports with your definition of animal intelligence, and then apply it to the species in which you’re interested. You also have to be sure that the animal can be trained to take a test—and we know about training of cats versus dogs.

The kicker here, which throws all this garbage out the window, is in the very article above:

The real oddball carnivore is the racoon [sic; these people can’t even spellcheck] – even though it’s close to cats in terms of size, it actually has a similar number of neurons to dogs. Considering raccoons can smash intelligence tests, we’re not surprised.

Racoons >> dogs even though they have the same number of neurons.  Sorry, but I’m not impressed with neuron count.

And here’s another bit of evidence: watch the video below. The “smart” dog can’t figure out to turn the stick sideways. And realize that a cat wouldn’t even pick up a damn stick to please somebody else. Now who’s smarter?


Alvargenga, D. J. et al. 2017. Dogs have the most neurons, though not the largest brain: Trade-off between body mass and number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of large carnivoran species. Frontiers Neuroanatomy, in press.  doi: 10.3389/fnana.2017.00118

56 thoughts on “Are dogs smarter than cats?

  1. We have a couple of ferrets. They’re geniuses about getting into anywhere they shouldn’t be. My theory is that they’ve repurposed the neurons that support self-preservation in other animals since they demonstrate no concern for that.

  2. It’s all a game. Smarts -or intelligence- is dependent on things other than brain size or number of neurons (well, in addition to). Some years ago while I was in Gradual school a friend who was a student in zoology (? I don’t recall the exact title) told me of an experiment comparing the abilities of squirrels and dogs. They tied animals to long leashes wrapped around objects and placed food just out of reach. The squirrels quickly figured out what to do but the dogs were stumped. But, as my friend was quick to say, that’s not an indication squirrels are smarter than dogs. They live lives that require them to figure out complex paths through the trees.

    The point is, intelligence tests often can’t be used in meaningful ways if the subjects have very different life strategies. So while it’s true that cats would never deign to carry a stick and try to get across a bridge it’s no indication tbat they are smarter than dogs.

    They ARE fluffier, though.

  3. I don’t believe there is a single metric for something called “intelligence”. There are different abilities in different areas.

    In the 1970s, I took a “differential aptitude” test that measured: spatial reasoning, mathematical reasoning, mechanical reasoning, clerical ability, verbal reasoning, and a few others.

    I had a mediocre score on mechanical reasoning, a much better than average on clerical reasoning, and scored very high on all the others.

    Dogs clearly have better vocabulary skills than cats, and are probably better than cats in some other selected areas, but I’m really not sure there is a linearly measurable entity called “intelligence”.

    1. We can’t even be sure that dogs are better with vocabulary. Cats might understand when someone recites a Shakespearean, but we’d never know it because they just don’t give a shit.

  4. Both species aren’t exactly the brightest. I think dogs are smarter, and for that reason used as assistants for various tasks.

    They can also understand effortlessly a number of commands, and appear to have a good theory of mind. When I walk my parents’ dogs, they can memorize a round even when unfamiliar and the older one (often lazy) knows that we completed a lap, and then sits down and wants us to go home. They also recognize places, and even know the sound of our car, which excites them (other cars don’t).

    In a small way, you can also “talk” to them, and they understand that they should go to some room, or find a person, or wait there etc. Like cats, they also communicate what they want, and can be strong-willed, or stubborn like cats.

    Both species aren’t (as far as I know) intelligent in the way as some birds, dolphins, cephalopods are, solving complex puzzles.

    Obviously, this contest has no bearing on how adorable cats are.

    1. The problem with measuring either animals’ intelligence in relation to other other is the very different personalities and willingness to obey. As I noted above, cats might recognizes just as many commands, but they really don’t care to listen to anyone trying to boos them around. I had one cat that would respond to all sorts of commands, but he was unusually obedient.

      If you watch cats hunt, they clearly remember their surroundings like dogs. My first cat, when he wanted to come inside and knew that I was asleep, would climb a tree next to the house and jump onto the awning above the porch, then go to my bedroom window and knock with his paws until I let him in. He knew that’s where I would be late at night and it would be the only place he could get my attention. During the daytime, he would just come to the glass door at the deck. Every cat I’ve ever had recognizes the sounds of my car, the garage, etc., and knows what they all mean. Any time I pull into the driveway, every cat I’ve ever had runs to the door or perches on the couch at the window above the garage to watch me pull in.

      Nobody can really be sure which one is smarter, but it’s easier to observe various behaviors that might convince someone the more time you spend with them.

  5. The exceptional thing about raccoons (among carnivores) isn’t their intelligence, but the density of their neurons, on a par with primates. The fact that they appear to be at or near primate-level intelligence (to me, at least), is evidence (to me) in favor of neuronal density being as at least an important predictor of intelligence across closely related species.

    Merriam-Webster gives “racoon” as a less common spelling of “raccoon”. It may be a regional thing. Some people call them trash pandas.

  6. I’ll assume there’s some tongue in cheek here. If you really doubt the intelligence of dogs, search around YT for border collie demonstrations, as well as rescue dog demonstrations. Beyond the ability to be trained for specific tasks, they show high level problem solving skills. More interesting to me than the argument of cats vs. dogs are the differences between dog breeds – some really are dumber than others, and some are more easily trained for tasks vs. problem solving.

    1. The fact that all dog breeds have relatively similar numbers of neurons, but only some breeds, like border collies, are seen as smart, goes AGAINST the theory that neuron number is a good indicator of intelligence.

      I don’t really have a dog in this fight (to make a pun), but I don’t accept the argument that dogs are smarter than cats simply because they have more neurons. Trainability, of course, is based on the fact that dogs evolved from social pack animals that had a hierarchy.

      1. Also, as the article mentions, it was thought before this that cats had more neurons. What mistake did that first study supposedly make that this second one corrected? Not that it matters since, as you say, nobody has demonstrated that more neurons equals greater intelligence.

        “Trainability, of course, is based on the fact that dogs evolved from social pack animals that had a hierarchy.”

        Isn’t it also because humans have bred dogs for hundreds of years to be trainable, while cats were not selectively bred (at least, not in this way)?

      2. I agree in that the evidence I see for dogs being smarter has nothing to do with numbers of neurons. (I do suspect there’s some correlation between neuron number and some measures of intelligence, but I’m not going to try to back that up). My argument is simply, watch their behavior. And for dogs it is *not* all trained behavior. There is real problem solving going on for some, and at a level, I’m sorry to say, not demonstrated by cats. Dog intelligence has been an active area of research in the past, and from what I’ve read it does not look good for cats.

        Cats do get a lot of mileage out of their air of superiority, and when I see my cat and dog side by side, the cat does in fact just *look* smarter!

  7. Even with a normal definition of intelligence such as capacity for learning or reasoning it is likely a waste of time to answer this one. Even attempting to measure within one species is generally based on a bad definition of what smart is. Is it the score on a test or how many books you have read. If we put the average modern man or woman in a cave environment, with stone age equipment, how would they perform next to the real thing. If you went into the woods and attempted to survive, how would you compare to the coyote.

    On this issue I sometimes think of my grandfather who lived during the first 80 years of the 20th century. He left school at the 8th grade level because work and eating were a necessity. Yet he became a first class mechanic and aviator and was self employed most all of his life. He fixed airplanes as well as cars and tractors. He built the houses he lived in, doing all the work himself. You will find it very hard to find people this smart today and I am not even close to the things he could do.

  8. Neurons don’t come for free. They’re metabolically expensive. If an animal has an excess of neurons for it’s size compared to what’s expected, there’s probably a good adaptive reason for that. A hypothesis I like, possibly influenced by my fondness for dogs, is that sociality promotes neural density. Cats are far less social than dogs, so they wouldn’t need all that wetware for socially important things like a theory of mind.

      1. The eusociality of honeybees and naked mole rats is modally different from the sociality of dogs, raccoons, and primates.

  9. Animals are all geniuses at doing what they have evolved to do. Dogs have been artificially selected to do things we tell them to do. Cats have not been tinkered with, and for thousands of years mainly hung out in barns keeping rodents away from grain.

    Also, DJT has the same number of neurons as Stephen Hawking.

    Case closed.

    1. It’s a matter of degree. Dogs and cats are pretty close relatives. That’s what makes it interesting. Both can have their champions. But both are smarter than snails and not as smart as humans or chimps. There’s an intelligence spectrum that gets more blurry and contentious and subjective the closer you look.

    2. “Also, DJT has the same number of neurons as Stephen Hawking”. Are you sure about that?
      I think we should do a dissection of their respective brains and count their neurons. The loss of Stephen Hawking to humanity would be balanced by the loss of Mr Trump, methinks. 🙂

  10. We had a Lab who would pick up the stick by the end in this situation, so some are clearly smarter than others. He was extremely smart – I’ve never come across a smarter animal.

    We also had some very smart cats. We’ve had several that ride in the car. Mum had a kitten not long ago that would ride in the car to my home, jump out of the car when it got to my home, run up the path to my front door, and once inside go to where I always put fish out for it.

    I changed the location once, and he was very confused until I called him to the new location. He went straight to the new location the next time, and when there was no fish, went back to the old location on his own.

    1. Here’s a little story I like to tell about my first cat (see my response to Aneris above for another cool one):

      Since he always used to come to the glass door at the back of the house to be let in, he did the same thing during the first big snowstorm in that initial year after I adopted him. There was a foot of snow at the door, so I went to it and pretended to pull really hard to demonstrate that I couldn’t open it (I really couldn’t, as it was frozen shut). After taking a few seconds to figure out what was happening, he went around the house to the front door, and I let him on.

      From that day forward, every time there was a significant amount of snow at the back door, he would wait there until I came into the room and made eye contact with him, and then run around to the front door. He knew not to just wait at the front door because it wasn’t glass, and so I wouldn’t know he was there without first seeing him at the back.

  11. So you were that fly on the wall in my classroom this week when my boys (ages 10-13) began, out of the blue, arguing this same thing. All are farm boys and hunters; all own both. They nearly came to blows but we managed to regain civility and had a lot of laughs. For myself: it’s dogs hands-down. I had only had cats my entire life until four years ago when I unexpectedly fell in love with Lucy the Yellow Lab and brought her home. Life has never been the same. Lucy brings the cats in at night, oversees their activities, and tattles whenever they are naughty. She’ll even eat their unwanted kills and not leave them around to rot. Life is good.

    1. Yes, I know this one. An interesting point there is that the extremely large brains of humans were permitted to evolve because of the cultural practice of cooking food, which makes more nutrients available. This practice appeared to have begun with Homo erectus. I don’t know how well accepted this idea is, but it was interesting.

      1. I’ve heard another story, that humans could develop their big brains because they used to be coastal animals, having a great supply of omega 3 fatty acids. I found that hypothesis, or rather a speculation, quite interesting.
        Omega 3 fatty acids are indeed necessary for brain development and fatty fish and seafood indeed contain a lot of them.
        However, it has not been established beyond reasonable doubt that humans were in fact coastal for a substantial period of their recent evolution, nor is it established -to put it mildly- that a surplus amount of omega 3 fatty acids will or even can drive brain development.
        As said, a nice speculation.

    1. So dogs will do tricks, and cats won’t.

      Dog-lovers think this proves dogs are smarter. Cat-lovers know this proves exactly the opposite.


  12. It got stuck in my memory from anatomy lessons: Turgieniev’s brain 2.5 L and Anatol France only 800 ml… why do we read him?

    Best regards!

  13. Given the choice, I prefer dogs and cats over humans when it comes to company, and I’m allergic to cats.

  14. I came into the office today and brought my Springer Spaniel, who’s lying on the couch next to my desk with his slide rule working out Fermat’s Last Theorem. So, I dunno, maybe I’m gonna go with dogs on this one.

  15. “dogs are smarter than cats” is a blanket statement which can have no validity whatever. Which dogs? Which cats? My samoyed who opened latched doors and cupboards to get his own food? My german short hair, a most genial fellow, who never learned how to push an unlatched door open? a samoyed who plotted his escapes and made his breaks during the 5 milliseconds my back was turned and came back when good and ready to do so? My neighbour’s beagle, thick as two short planks, who is practically non-functional and can’t find his way home after taking off after a rabbit scent and had to be rescued by a fullscale neighbourhood search?

    Yes it’s all anecdotal but that doesn’t invalidate the observations made over years. There are more-intelligent dogs and less-intelligent dogs;there are more-intelligent cats and less-intelligent cats. And there are more-intelligent professors and less-intelligent professors

    1. Good point, I’ve known clever dogs and clever cats, but most of them are thick as a planks. Probably due to the nefarious influence of domestication, I’d guess.
      Ever heard about a dog passing grade one in primary school? So there! However, I could imagine, say, a cockatoo just doing that. :0

    2. This is the correct answer 🙂

      We’re all having fun trying to come up with evidence for the answer we want, but we have no damn clue.

  16. Another thought: a sign of intelligence is how easily a creature can experience boredom. If there’s merit to that, dogs beat cats by a mile. I’m sitting here watching my cat stare out the window for several minutes – hard to believe a single thought is crossing his walnut-sized brain. But he is quite content. Whereas “intelligent” dogs are known to experience boredom and anxiety if not stimulated or socialized. Anyone who’s owned a dog knows this well.

    1. If we could figure out which animals are smartest just by watching what they do in some confined environment every day, we wouldn’t have thought, say, parrots were stupid for so long.

  17. If you accept that neurons are the brain cells that do computation, which seems reasonable from all we know, then it follows that more neurons => more computation. It may be highly nonlinear because of network effects. I suspect it is. Going from “more computation” to “more intelligence” is a value judgement.

  18. From my observations of raccoon behavior they are far more intelligent than either cats or dogs. It may have something to do with possessing front paws that they use as hands (similar to monkeys). Attempts at trapping regularly lead to destroyed traps. They don’t make good pets like cats or dogs but they are able to adapt to and take advantage of the presence of humans in all sorts of crowded environments even Japan where they infest beautiful wooden temples.

    1. The primate-like raccoon use of front paws is remarkable, and I believe unique among carnivores, at least in degree. They’re also very social.

  19. I have recently found the book by Frans de Waal “Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?” to be very entertaining and enlightening. Him being a scientist, I tend to think he does not exaggerate or oversimplify.

    And the question here I suspect he would regard as meaningless, as would I, despite it being entertaining to read advocates one way or the other.

  20. Insofar as I am aware, we can’t even accurately measure different types of human intelligence.
    Let’s work on that first so maybe we’ll know what we mean when we say “intelligence” and ascribe “it” to other animals. Are they smart in the ways we are or quite different?

    Like Randall’s grandfather, my mother stopped school after the 8th grade. She worked hard all her life. She didn’t fly aircraft, but she could do virtually anything she set her mind on. She was a fantastic seamstress who could make a pattern just from looking at an existing garment. She was good with all kinds of farm equipment. She was a bookkeeper. She worked as hard as my father in building our house. She knew how to butcher all kinds of animals. She gardened and canned. (She had a green thumb, often saving plants I was killing from deat.) She was a wonderful cook. She was a welder during the war. She taught herself how to upholster furniture. I’m supposedly quite intelligent based on IQ tests, but I’ll never match my mother.

    I haven’t had much experience with dogs or cats due to allergies and asthma. We had a Toy Poodle once (who didn’t shed)that was extremely smart in many ways, but thought he was a big dog, so chased bigger dogs (running them off) and the occasional cow. Always successful and never got squashed.

  21. Re spelling, raccoon/racoon are accepted variants, at least in the Oxford dictionary. Re the great feline/canine debate, there is more to life than ‘intelligence’. I prefer the apparently greater dependency and acknowledgment I get from dogs. I also recognise my small Border terrier x pug has levels of auditory and olfactory intelligence far superior to mine.

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