How To Find Out How Smart Your Pet Really Is

Every pet owner wants to believe that their furry friend is an animal genius. We all love bragging about our cat who always finds his way home, or our doggo who brings us our slippers in the morning! How do you genuinely evaluate how intelligent — or adorably dim — your pet is, though? Well, here are a number of simple, fun experiments you can conduct at home to find out if you’ve got a feline or canine Einstein on your hands!

Are dogs smarter than cats?

Before we get into the methods of testing your pet’s smarts, we have to attempt to answer an age-old question: are dogs smarter than cats? Common wisdom is that dogs must be more intelligent because they have bigger brains than cats, and certain research seems to back this up. For instance, dogs have twice the number of neurons in their brains, but does this necessarily equate to higher intelligence? Maybe not: researcher Alexandra Horowitz of New York’s Barnard College claims that the entire question is flawed.

A flawed question

Dr. Horowitz told Live Science, “At its simplest form, cats are smart at the things cats need to do, and dogs at dog things. I don't think it makes any sense at all to talk about relative ‘smarts’ of species.” Evolutionary anthropology professor Brian Hare agreed, saying, “Asking whether a dog is smarter than a cat is like asking whether a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver — it depends on what it was designed for.” So, there you have it: it’s not easy, and maybe slightly pointless, to debate which species is smarter.

A question of motivation

When it comes to testing your pets, though, their reactions may differ hugely. Sarah Hartwell of Messy Beast, a cat care and history website, explained, “Dogs are largely motivated by the pack-living instinct. They will perform purely for praise and acceptance dished out by the dominant pack member: the owner or trainer. They will also perform because, in the wild, they risk being driven out of a pack or being demoted to pariah position. Cats are not motivated by social status factors. To train a cat you must find out what motivates it.”

Difficulties of assessing cat intelligence

“Despite being favorite research subjects for over a century, cats are particularly challenging subjects for intelligence testing,” continued Dr. Hartwell. “It is hard to get them to show how they learn or what they know, especially in a laboratory setting. While social animals like dogs and horses respond to social rewards and to punishment, these are almost meaningless to cats. Although cats may enjoy being petted, it doesn't have the significance of acceptance by a superior in the same way it does for dogs.”