A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Which is smarter, cats or dogs?

October 6, 1978

Dear Cecil:

There are some (my girlfriend for one) who say cats are smarter than dogs, and others (I think most) who say that dogs are definitely more intelligent. Which is, and why?

Dear Bruce:

This sounds like one of those couple arguments it could be dangerous to get caught in the middle of. If I answer the wrong way, do I get crossed off the Christmas card list?

Judging the relative intelligence of cats and dogs is like deciding which is better looking — there's just not much basis for comparison. Psychologists have a tough enough time coming up with a culture-blind IQ test for humans, who all belong to the same species; designing a species-blind test for dogs and cats is just about impossible. What people take to be signs of intelligence in their pets usually are just specialized survival skills that say nothing about innate brainpower. A cat, for instance, is much more dexterous with its paws than a dog. This dexterity fascinates cat lovers, who also cite the cat's legendary standoffishness as proof of its mental superiority. The dog, on the other hand, is much more of a social animal; dog advocates claim this proves the dog is more civilized, ergo, more intelligent.

Animal ethologists (they're the professionals in this line of work) regard such arguments as rubbish. Cats are loners because they've always hunted alone — one mouse won't feed more than one cat. Without his nimble paws, a cat couldn't corner, catch, and eat his prey. Dogs, though, hunted in packs because they picked on game bigger than they were. They used their teeth to kill their prey and dismember the carcass. (Admittedly, not all cats hunt alone — lions don't, for instance — but let's not make this discussion any more confusing than it already is.) Ethologists don't even like to weigh one breed against another, within the same species. If a bloodhound smells better, or a greyhound sees better — well, that's what they were bred for.

But surely, you cry, there must be some way to compare cats and dogs. Maybe, but it hasn't turned up yet. Obedience and trainability aren't considered reliable measures of intelligence. Newborn cats open their eyes a little sooner than dogs do, but the dog gets into solid foods sooner than the cat. Overall, puppies and kittens grow into adulthood at virtually identical rates. Mama cats toilet train their young, and mama dogs don't, but that doesn't prove anything. My advice is, call it a draw and go argue about something else.

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