How Smart is Your Cat?


Your cat is clever, perhaps even crafty, but how smart is she? According to scientists, it’s not your imagination. While your dog might have a higher social IQ than your cat, she can solve harder cognitive problems, if she feels like it.

Her brain is only 2 inches long, weighs as much as a pair of dice and makes up about 0.9 percent of her body mass. While it’s smaller than your dog’s, its structure and surface folding is 90 percent like yours. Your cerebral cortex, the region of your brain that controls thinking and problem-solving, contains 21 to 26 billion neurons or nerve cells. Your cat has 300 million neurons while your dog only has 160 million.

Basically, your cat is as smart as an 18-month-old child. She can experience primary emotions such as happiness, anger and fear. “We don’t think cats can experience secondary emotions like forgiveness or vengeance,” says Dr. Susan Krebsbach, owner of Creature Counseling in Oregon, Wis. “How many times have you heard, ‘He urinated outside of the litter box because he was mad at me because I was gone for the weekend?’”

While your cat can’t appreciate all the colors you do, she has more nerve cells in the visual areas of her brain than humans and most other mammals. That’s why she zooms across the house chasing a speck of dust that you can’t even see.

But her world isn’t black and white. “Because cats are more active in the early morning and the late evening when light levels are low, their retinas contain eight times more rods than humans,” Krebsbach says. “So cats are more sensitive to light in the blue-violet and yellow-green range.”

Besides having top-notch vision, your cat has object permanence, an understanding that things exist even when she can’t see, hear, touch or smell them. That is, out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind.

Her short-term memory spans about 16 hours. In a laboratory setting (mad scientist optional), she can probably solve food puzzles from memory. But Rubik’s cubes or sudoku are out of the question. While her long-term memory is difficult to gauge, it’s probably impeccable, which you already know if your fur baby bops you in the head at 6 a.m. She has an internal clock and seems to “know” when it’s time for things to start happening. She’s good at picking up on other regular indicators of the time, like bird songs and sunset. No, she can’t read clocks. Change the time on them to see if it makes any difference. It won’t.

If cats are so smart, why aren’t there any drug, cadaver or explosives detective cats? “Well, remember, cats have a different skill set, but that doesn’t make them less intelligent. As a matter of fact, we don’t have any bomb-sniffing humans.” Krebsbach says. Dogs come when they’re called, but cats take a message and get back to you later.

Puzzle Toys
“During the daytime, cats are loving members of our families with scratches behind the ear and sleepy moments on our laps,” says Frederik Lindskov, product developer at Northmate. “During the night, however, their instincts tell them to go hunting for mice…around the neighborhood. The greatest challenge for any cat owner is to make a home that reflects both sides of this double nature.” Enter puzzle toys. They ease boredom, encourage mental stimulation and reduce destructive behaviors. Here are three of our favorites:

1. Northmate Catch Interactive Feeder
Designed to kickstart your kitty’s hunting instincts, Catch by Northmate controls portion size, slows eating and prevents vomiting. Dishwasher safe and suitable for indoor and outdoor use, this specialized bowl is made of hard, phthalate-free plastic and has four anti-slip feet. Scatter wet or dry food across the feeder. Then your cat can push or grab it out from between its smoothly rounded spikes.

2. Nina Ottosson Melon Madness Puzzle & Play
Your curious cat will love Nina Ottosson’s Melon Madness Puzzle & Play. Cats bat at the pegs and swivel the seeds to uncover six hidden treat compartments that hold up to a quarter cup of food. Each puzzle is made from food-safe materials and comes with a tips and tricks info sheet. With no removable parts, you’ll also never have to worry about losing play pieces again.

3. Trixie 5-in-1 Cat Activity Center
Engage your smarty cat’s five senses with Trixie’s Activity Fun Board. Developed by cat expert Helena Dbalý, it has four transparent globes that can be filled with food for your cat to fish out. Its peg and alley centers allow her to MacGyver kibble around non-pointy pins and wavy walls. Its tongue center is best for liquid treats and has slits that prevent your cat from using her paws. Last but not least, its tunnel center is ideal for stalking and swatting hidden toys and treats.