Dogs vs. Cats: Who is Smarter?

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Who is smarter, cats or dogs? If you're a pet parent to both animals, you may have witnessed many ways that both cats and dogs can top the intelligence charts. Dogs, for example, are easily trained to follow commands. Cats, on the other hand, may not follow instructions but can open doors and solve puzzles. Are cats smarter than dogs?

Researching Animal Smarts

A study published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy concludes that dogs may be the more intelligent species. (Don't tell your cat.) In this study, researchers aimed to determine how many neurons were in the cerebral cortex in certain carnivorous and omnivorous species: the domesticated dog, domesticated cat, ferret, banded mongoose, raccoon, striped hyena, lion, and brown bear.

But first, what does a neuron do, and why is it important to study? How is the measurement of neurons a good determinant of whether or not an animal is intelligent? According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a neuron is "a type of cell that receives and sends messages from the body to the brain and back to the body." These neural messages are sent by a weak electrical current in a connection called a synapse.

Neurologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, one of the study's researchers, explains her choice of using neurons as a measure of intelligence to National Geographic. She says, "neurons are the basic information processing units. The more units you find in the brain, the more cognitively capable the animal is." Therefore, if you're wondering, "Who is smarter, cats or dogs?" you might want to take a look at the difference of neurons in both species' brains — which is exactly what these researchers did.

Curious golden retriever dog

Inside of a Dog

First, the researchers isolated the animals' cerebral cortices. The cerebral cortex synthesizes outside stimuli received by other parts of the brain to make decisions and solve problems, National Geographic writes, making it an ideal location to count neurons. The animal cortices were then broken down into suspended nuclei from neural cells to allow researchers to begin counting neurons.

It's also important to mention that a larger brain does not mean more space for more neurons. Herculano-Houzel's study featured two dogs, a 16-pound mutt and a 70-pound golden retriever, and both dogs' brains contained roughly the same number. The much larger bear, in contrast, had far fewer neurons.

But how the cats' and dogs' brains stack up? (Your pets are waiting in suspense!)

The Pawful Truth

The results indicate that the cerebral cortices of the dogs studied had approximately 500 million neurons each, compared to the cat's 250 million neurons. In comparison, the same area of the human brain is estimated to have as many as 16 billion neurons.

Critics of Herculano-Houzel's experiment argue that intelligence can't be determined by neurons alone. Some cats present themselves to be extremely smart, while some dogs may not quite live up to the standards set by science. Cuddly pets aside, raccoons were found to have around 438 neurons, which for their brain size is enough to "mistake the raccoon for a small primate," according to The Washington Post.

While the question, "Who is smarter cats or dogs?" may seem to finally be answered once and for all, this study doesn't prove either animal's superiority. In fact, the question, "Are dogs smarter than cats?" may be answered positively by someone who is confident their kitten is the smartest animal on the planet! Anyone who's ever had a cat and a dog together knows that both animals have positive traits. So, cuddle your furry friends and shower them with love and affection even if they don't take first prize in the "Who is smarter: cats or dogs?" debate.


Erin Ollila