For decades, scientists have debated which animal species are actually most intelligent humans or other animals. Some argue that only human beings can possess true intelligence because we can learn languages and use tools to get things done. Other researchers say that animals lack true intelligence because they don’t exhibit self-awareness and aren’t capable of using their minds independently of us.
They also believe that our ability to think abstractly comes from learning in school. In other words, animals might be able to recognize objects but not understand them in terms of cause and effect. Finally, some experts claim that animals just haven’t advanced enough to become truly intelligent. Even though chimpanzees have shown evidence of higher cognitive functioning, such as the ability to remember the past and plan for the future, many people still consider them “merely” clever apes.
In addition to these arguments over whether animals are really very smart at all, there’s another question being raised by today’s research on animal cognition. Is it possible that certain animals could be smarter than humans? For example, if you ask any cat owner, he’ll probably tell you that his feline friend has a mind of its own.
He knows when to listen, come when called, sit down and stay put (or go outside) and perform other basic acts without prompting from him. But does your cat know how to open a window latch or manipulate a door knob? If so, then maybe that cat is smarter than you are. Or is it merely that this particular cat happens to be very well trained? One thing is clear: Cats definitely have mental powers that can rival those of a lot of humans. Let’s take a closer look at what makes cats so smart.
Cats are known for their cleverness. You may have seen videos online showing cats opening cabinets and closets with ease. Or you’ve read stories of cats who figured out how to unlock a deadbolt lock to escape from a locked basement. And although there are no scientific studies to back up these anecdotal tales, you’d have to admit that cats seem to have quite a knack for knowing exactly what to do when something gets stuck.
But cats’ brains aren’t much bigger than ours. So why are they so good at problem solving? The answer lies in the fact that cats were domesticated thousands of years ago. Their ancestors spent time around humans, living near and interacting with early humans who had already developed complex social relationships. This allowed their genes to evolve in ways that made them better suited for life with humans.
As a result, domestic cats now possess unique traits. Not only are they descended from wolves, but they’re also descended from wild felines, including jungle cats, ocelots, lynxes, bobcats and serval cats. These different genetic lines give domestic cats special talents.
For instance, jungle cats tend to hunt birds more successfully than housecats do. Lynx kittens start hunting young mice as soon as they’re born while wild-born bobcats must wait until they’re older before they attempt to catch food on their own. Servals and housecats need only rely on humans for food.
Domesticated cats also differ from their wild counterparts in two important ways. First, they’ve been bred to look like housecats and therefore don’t resemble their ancestral forms. Second, they’ve lived alongside humans long enough to develop innate behaviors that allow them to interact peacefully with humans.
As a result, they’re one of the few species whose behavior doesn’t change when introduced to new environments. A pet cat will behave in the same way regardless of where it lives or if it interacts with strangers.
Now that we know a little bit about cats’ natural history, let’s talk about their intelligence. Next, we’ll compare cats to other animals that are often considered smarter than we are.
Can Animals Be Smarter Than Humans?
Although they’re less physically powerful, animals like elephants, dolphins and chimps are thought to be far more intelligent than humans. After all, we humans are capable of doing things like building airplanes, writing symphonies and understanding quantum physics. Yet, we’re still unable to write computer code or solve difficult math problems.
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that cats are also pretty smart. It seems almost unfair to judge them against other animals since they weren’t evolved to live among humans. However, one area where cats excels is navigating mazes. Researchers have found that cats navigate mazes faster than rats, pigeons and primates.
They also display spatial memory, meaning that they remember where they left off after a short break. Cats also avoid dangerous areas in mazes, suggesting that they can anticipate bad situations.
Cats also show signs of self-awareness. When researchers showed cats images of themselves, some reacted shyly and others acted aggressively toward the camera lens. Some appeared to recognize themselves in photographs taken hours later. Studies involving mirror tests revealed that cats recognized themselves in full length mirrors.
They also exhibited self-directed behaviors, such as grooming themselves. Scientists used brain scans to measure activity levels in various parts of their brains. Cat owners who interacted with their pets reported increased happiness levels during scanning sessions. And when scientists gave cats puzzles to complete, they showed greater activation in the frontal cortex, which is associated with reasoning.
Cats also appear to feel pleasure when completing a task, indicating that they enjoy the process of thinking rather than simply achieving a goal. While these results suggest that cats are self-aware and mentally separate from humans, they don’t necessarily mean that cats are smarter than humans. For example, scientists have argued that dogs may be smarter than fish because they can count. Fish, however, require more cues than numbers alone provide.
Dogs also fail simple discrimination tasks, while cats pass them easily. Perhaps cats are inherently smarter, yet they’ve learned tricks that make them look a little smarter to humans. Or maybe cats’ inherent intelligence isn’t dependent upon environment, training or culture. Maybe they’re just naturally superior to humans in certain domains.
To test this idea, scientists studied cats who had never been exposed to humans. Although they lacked experience with people, their brains contained the same number of neurons as normal cats. That means that cats’ intellectual abilities don’t depend on environmental influences. Instead, they may be innately superior to other mammals.
It’s becoming increasingly common knowledge that animals are significantly smarter than we give them credit for. We’ve discussed the latest findings into animals’ cognitive development, self awareness and problem solving skills. Now it’s time to find out what kind of relationship exists between humans and our best friends. On the next page, we’ll talk about cats as pets.
One study tested cats’ memories by placing toys along a path leading to food. Cats would normally follow the path to reach the food, but when researchers took away the food, they noticed that the cats remembered where the food was hidden. The researchers concluded that cats possessed a form of delayed response conditioning, which is the ability to link events together after time has passed.
Cats as Pets
We’ve established that cats are smarter than most animals. But what kind of relationship do humans have with their pets? According to American Humane Association figures, nearly 70 percent of Americans keep cats as household pets. Of the remaining 30 percent, approximately half choose to adopt shelter cats. Why do people decide to bring home strays? Many cite their love of cats as the main reason. Others are drawn to cats due to their independent personalities. Still others want to contribute to society through fostering abandoned cats.
Regardless of the reasons behind their choice, most cat lovers agree that having a pet cat enhances quality of life. And indeed, cats are beneficial additions to families. While some complain that cats shed hair everywhere, others note that a pet helps relieve stress. There are plenty of benefits to owning a cat besides relieving stress.
Petting a cat stimulates oxytocin production in both humans and cats. Oxytocin promotes calmness and relaxation. It also increases feelings of affection and trust. Ownership provides comfort and companionship, too. Cats help people deal with loneliness, isolation and death. They also provide amusement and entertainment, especially for children.
Yet, despite all the positive aspects of having a pet cat, some people end up abandoning their pets once their needs are met. Reasons range from allergies to behavioral issues. People often leave pets when they move or travel overseas. They may also surrender them when they move to apartments or condominiums. Sometimes pet owners give up pets because they can’t afford medical care for sick pets or to pay vet bills.
Or, they may abandon their pets because they’ve grown attached to someone else’s pet. Whatever the case, millions of pets are given up every year. That’s why many shelters across the country offer programs designed to reunite lost pets with their original owners.
The most famous religious figure to own a cat was Saint Francis Xavier. During his lifetime, the Spanish missionary owned several cats. One of his favorites was a female tabby named Toma. She accompanied Xavier throughout Spain and Portugal. In 1548, while traveling through Lisbon, she died suddenly. The saint buried her beside himself, right arm extended above her body in the sign of the cross.