How Smart Are Cats, Exactly?

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Have you ever just stopped and looked into the inquisitive eyes of your furry kiddo? Do you ever wonder to yourself, “Just how smart are cats, really?”

Their antics perplex us, entertain us and well…. sometimes, infuriate us! Much like a child, our cats have their own unique form of intelligence and reasoning capabilities – albeit a bit on the impulsive side!

β€œWhat greater gift than the love of a cat.” 

– Charles Dickens
how smart are cats
Photo credit: Found Animals Foundation at Flickr

Cats are highly intelligent creatures, especially if a food reward is involved! Though they do tend to accept your requests on their own terms, this by no means signals a lack of intelligence. Stubbornness? Yes. Stupid? Definitely not. Their innate curiosity coupled with their tenacity to achieve their unwavering goal is nothing shy of remarkable.

If you have been a cat lover or parent for any length of time, there’s no doubt in my mind you too have noticed that their personalities are as diverse as we humans.

For instance, my cat Sugar used to hang on every word I said. She knew well over 100 vocal prompts even though I hadn’t trained her with them. I simply talked to her as I would a human child. The more she listened, the more she understood and responded accordingly.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, I’ve had a few highly aloof kitties who weren’t in the least bit amused by my communication efforts or commands. πŸ˜€ You know the look only our beloved felines can give …. “Hmmm….Is there something in this for me??

β€œNever try to outstubborn a cat.” 

― Robert A. Heinlein
how smart are cats
Photo credit: Virginia McMillan – Flickr

Understanding The Feline Brain

Cats are notoriously difficult to study scientifically. Reasons for this are partially due to personality variances. While other reasons would include how they respond to stimuli – or don’t. Their independent nature makes them far less likely to submit to mere human’s desire for “testing.”

This fiercely independent streak has given them the reputation of being unteachable or less intelligent than their canine counterpart, for example. Quite the contrary is true in actuality.

They do have less of a desire to please, in general. A cat’s brain is geared more toward survival, says Dr. Jeff Warber. Overall, this indicates the brain of a cat lends itself less to being overtly social. The “social IQ” however does not automatically translate into smarts. It just means they are motivated by different things. (Reminds me of an introvert vs. extrovert personality)

Some years ago now, I became familiar with Dr. Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences in humans. The more I understood how flawed our system of comprehending intelligence is by mainstream societal standards, the more I thought about nature and the intellect of the various creatures within it.

With our limited structure by which to measure intelligence, I believe it is very difficult to truly know the depth by which cats perceive and process their world and us. Science journalist Ed Yong got it right by saying:

Testing animal cognition is a tricky business, and comparing and contrasting across species lines, especially when distinct species-specific tests are used, is fraught territory.

Ed Yong at

Ed Yong goes on to say that there have been significant advancements studying animal cognition in an apples-to-apples scenario, where more conclusive results can be discovered.

Though this testing of animal intelligence is in its infancy, they have been able to successfully test self-control in many species. With advancements coming down the pike for this research field, I believe there are many fascinating studies to come, giving us a much better understanding of the animals we share our world with.

What we do know about our cat’s brains is fascinating, however.

Interesting Cat Brain Facts

Image of a cat’s brain

Did you know: Structurally speaking, the cat brain is around 90% similar to the human brain? Not only that but cats have significant surface folding (wrinkling) on their brains, much like us.

What is surface folding responsible for, you ask? This unique feature of the brain increases surface area. Increased surface area provides more power for processing information, cues from us and their environment, emotions and other sensory related input. As it turns out, in terms of grading intelligence, the surface area (folding), structure and overall neurons available matter far more than brain size when determining how smart our cats are.

What’s more? The cerebral cortex [the area of the brain responsible for decision-making, problem-solving, planning, memory, and language-processing] in the brain of a cat is fairly advanced. So advanced in fact that cats are believed to possess around 300 million neurons, while dogs have around 160 million. To put this in perspective, we humans have approximately 11.5 billion neurons firing off at any given time.

The cerebral cortex is also responsible for retaining both long and short-term memory. If you’ve observed cats, you know they are masters at picking up when anything in their space has changed.

Witnessing this tells me everything I need to know about how cats map their world and remember what it looked like, smelled like and felt like when they last left it. Have you noticed this too?

Not surprisingly, cats also have far more nerve cells in the visual portions of their cerebral cortex than most other mammals. (See also: How Do Cats See Color?)

Most fascinating of all to me however is what experts have deemed, “the solicitation purr.” Over time, our felines discovered that a certain high-frequency sound mimics a baby’s cry, getting our attention with ease. The similarity of a cat’s brain to a human’s brain paired with a cat’s vocal cord folds, allow them to trick our brains into immediate action, benefiting them greatly. πŸ™‚

Cats have mastered manipulation. The worst part? They’re so cute, I don’t even care that I’m being used! I bet you can relate!

how smart are cats
Credit: Jennifer C. – Flickr

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Just How Smart Are Cats?

In her fascinating and must-read book, The Cat Behavior Answer Book: Practical Insights & Proven Solutions for Your Feline Questions, expert cat behaviorist Arden Moore explains how to test your cat’s IQ with a theory called “object permanence.” This study of discernment originated to test cognitive development in children.

Try this: Show your kitty an object in plain view, such as their favorite toy. Then hide the toy by placing a solid object in front of it. If your cat looks behind the object to find the toy (instead of thinking it just disappeared), your kitty is considered to have the intelligence of at least an 18-month old toddler.

Extra smart kitties are capable of processing information similar to a 2 year old child! These cats would not only know to look behind the solid object to find their toy. They would also think ahead to where the object might move to. For example, they would predict the movement of a live mouse scooting out of sight momentarily – and wait until it reappears to pounce and catch their prized prey.

In her book, Arden Moore also touches on how cats learn by observation. This is why your kiddo may learn to open cabinets, doors, understand commands or any other brilliantly clever learned behavior.

The more you interact with them, the more their brains make connections enabling them to gain intelligence. In many ways, it is not that different from teaching a child.

What super smart abilities has your cat learned to do? Do you notice them listening as you speak, learning you and what you are communicating with them? (See also: The Cat Language Bible: Read & Reviewed for how to improve communication with your kitty)

Cat Charm

As you can see, answering the age old question about how smart cats are comes with many different layers of answers.

Any proud cat parent will gush about the intelligence their own cat possesses. Some of this is due to the fact that cats do get smarter with time, if you are working with them. The more you interact with them, the more they mimic you. Hence the smarter they seem to become.

Cat Daddy Bill has nicknamed our cat Dizzy, “Charming” for a reason. She’s smart enough to know exactly what tugs on the heartstrings and will get her precisely what she wants. Sneaky? Oh yeah! Charming? I’d say unbelievably so.

Cats have a way of worming into our hearts like nothing else can. They are curious, witty, entertaining, silly, and can be downright brilliant!

What has your cat done that has simply amazed you? I’d love to hear from you. And as always, many thanks and much love for sharing this article with your friends on social media. ❀ Thank you for reading!

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  1. Aww, Sugar sounds like she was a very smart one! Then again, Dizzy wielding her charm is also a pretty clever ploy!
    I think it’s best not to underestimate cats; what seems to be stupidity is often, I find, a level of cunning and intelligence that is capable of outsmarting their human counterpart. Really good points about the type of intelligence, and how they’re more driven by survival rather than social factors. I had no idea about the number of neurons in cats, that one does surprise me compared to dogs at nearly half the amount.
    And you are exactly spot on with how these cute little guys are masters of manipulation!
    Now, do you have any suggestions as to why my cat doesn’t understand the concept of retracting his claws? I want to think it’s not stupidity, but he knows it hurts and as a result nobody can play with him properly without being punctured or torn to pieces! πŸ˜‚
    Caz xx

    1. Sugar was definitely one of a kind. I miss her daily! But just as you’ve said, Dizzy is pretty remarkable herself. I hesitated to work with her at first because I was still grieving the loss of Shug and wasn’t really ready to invest my heart again yet. She had other ideas though! The more I’ve worked with her, the smarter I realize she is.

      You are spot on about the level of cunning and intelligence these rascals contain. Outsmarting us is a definite real possibility, haha! πŸ˜† I read a quote one time that went something along the lines of perhaps the reason cats can’t be studied for their intelligence is because they are too intelligent to submit to our pointless tests to prove their superiority. πŸ˜‚ What do you think?

      I chuckled, although with a grimace on my face, when reading your comment about your boy not keeping his claws retracted during playtime. An all too familiar story unfortunately. There are a couple of things you can try. Some toys for cats are made for kitties who like using their claws a lot. Try the toys that have longer handles or a barrier between you and your cat’s claws. (Like this: ) When playing with Dizzy, we use those wands with the string attached a lot. Saves much pain! πŸ˜€ They also have hand mitts with little balls at the end of the fingers that are padded for playtime and those work well.

      Typically when a cat is still with his/her mother as a kitten, they are taught not to be so rough with their claws, except during hunting. But since playing the way we do simulates hunting, they wind up being a bit too hard on us soft-skinned folks! Gently but directly saying, “Ow, no!!” and pulling his feet away from your skin any time your cat’s claws come near (or in contact) with you, will help reinforce that as a not-good behavior. Sometimes that just isn’t enough though when they get overly excited.

      As a last thought – they do make claw caps for cats. (For example: ) They are not painful, non-invasive and grow out with the claw itself. It’s a great solution for a whole lot of people. Much better for the cat than declawing and better than you getting shredded trying to entertain kitty!

      As always, really good to hear from you Caz! Sending you & yours lots of love! β™₯ I hope this has helped? πŸ™‚

      ~ Holly

    1. I think at a minimum, some are much more likely to show you how smart they are than others! πŸ˜€ What do you think?

      Thank you so much for coming by and sharing your thoughts.

  2. Let me approach this from the other end of the spectrum. I have one cat who is the stupidest cat I have ever seen or known. I won’t name names! It has nothing to do with a reluctance to do something smart. It is just his condition. I have another cat who is very smart. You can see the intelligence and alertness in her eyes. She always chooses to do the smart thing (for her). The fact they are both “untrainable” is meaningless as desire to perform or not plays a role.

    1. Haha πŸ™‚ I do understand exactly where you’re coming from. I must say though, your kiddos sound adorable! I bet you get constant entertainment in your household. I read a quote recently that really resonated with me. “You train dogs but you must teach cats.”

      Due to their brain similarities with ours – I’m wondering if we really do have some who suffer from different mental ‘disabilities.’ I had one black maine coon who was beyond slow. It was clear not much activity was going on upstairs! πŸ˜€

      Thanks for sharing your stories!

  3. This is fascinating, Holly! I know cats are smart as they seem to sense when I am sick or my routine changes for a different reason. The section about the wrinkling of the brain had me going wowow! It’s obvious you’ve done your reserach here and I appreciate it πŸ™‚

    1. Isn’t it amazing how they pick up on even small shifts in their environment? Whether it’s you or something else? That reminds me – a post on feline intuition might be good as well. πŸ™‚ They definitely sense sickness and it’s almost as if they want to help, comfort or protect us. Do you notice that as well? It’s very sweet!

      It is pretty incredible how their brains are so similar to ours, isn’t it? I agree with you – the science behind brain wrinkles and the intelligence that translates into is pretty wild. I doubt we’ll ever truly know just how smart these kiddos are. It’s much to their benefit πŸ˜€

      Have a wonderful weekend Christy! Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, as always!

  4. I didn’t get a notification of your reply but I’d saved my comment ages ago to check it had submitted okay. Thank you for taking the time to reply so thoroughly and for the suggestions! Cat claw caps? I never knew!! I can’t help but chuckle at the link you gave me because they look like false nails with so many different colours, even glittery ones πŸ˜‚ Now, if I can figure out a way to get them on before he claws my eyes out… πŸ˜‰

    1. No worries at all! For some reason, I don’t get notifications of your replies either from your site. πŸ˜’ Seems odd since we are both WordPress (I think?) Must be something to do with themes or the like.

      You are certainly welcome for the reply. Aren’t those nails funny? I’ve seen them on some kitties and they definitely stand out! You’ve voiced a very valid concern as far as the application process is concerned though. lol. Perhaps some Benadryl would be in order? πŸ˜› Only kidding!

    1. Aww!! 19! Wow. You must have a very entertaining life with all those kiddos!? I’d LOVE to hear your stories. ❀ Thank you so much for coming and sharing your words. I love your blog too and am grateful we have now connected πŸ™‚ Have a very blessed day!

      1. Yeah. I have a lot of stories about my cats. They bring so much joy into my life. Never a dull moment! Each one is an individual and I am so blessed to have them. I’m so glad you replied to my post and we connected.

      2. I will look forward to hearing more from you πŸ™‚ The love of a cat is definitely one of a kind. People who think they are uninterested and aloof are very wrong. They are indeed a blessing β™₯

        Thank you sincerely for taking your time to share your thoughts with me. I appreciate you! Have a wonderful day.

  5. That was a fascinating post . Its interesting that they have many nerve cells in the visual part of the brain.. no wonder they are so sharp at sighting things and sense any changes. It is interesting to note know about the purr sound to get attention as well.As you rightly say, when they are so cute you don’t mind the manipulation that you are being used!! Good post enjoyed reading it.

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