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How Smart Is Your Cat? Here’s How to Tell

Though cat intelligence isn't as well researched as that of dogs, there are still signs that you may be the proud owner of a kitty Einstein.

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Inside the cat brain

Can your cat respond to his or her name? Tell the difference between your voice and that of a stranger? Easily locate a toy hidden behind a solid object, say, a piece of furniture? If the answer to all these questions is yes, it’s a sign that your kitty is pretty smart, according to feline behaviorist Kristyn Vitale, PhD, a cat researcher at Oregon State University’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab.

Today, Felis silvestris catus is one of the world’s most popular pets, with an estimated 600 million of them living in households worldwide. And we can see why, looking at these pictures of the cutest cat breeds. “I think the ability of cats to be very flexible in their behavior is one reason they’ve been so popular,” Vitale says. “They can do well in an apartment or on a farm.” Though we do know many fascinating cat facts, relatively little research to date has been devoted to cat cognition, cat intelligence, or their internal mental processes, especially compared with the sizable number of studies conducted on dogs’ mental processes.

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Cognition versus intelligence in cats

Vitale is attempting to correct that lack of research. She’s one of a small number of researchers studying feline cognition, which, she says, differs from cat intelligence. She says that cognition is “how an individual cat is thinking about something.” Intelligence, by contrast, “is more how they are using what they think about something to act upon it in an intelligent way…a way that we perceive as being smart. It’s a fine line between the two.”

Until now, researchers have focused mainly on cats’ physical cognition, for example, hearing, sight, and smell. All these senses play an important role for cats from birth, especially smell, since kittens are born blind but with functioning olfactory systems. “Cats’ strong sense of smell is definitely a source of their intelligence and a major means by which they perceive the world,” according to Vitale. Your kitty’s scent preference (or at least sensibility) may be one of the reasons your cat sleeps on you.

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Cats understand object permanence

Another aspect of cats’ physical cognition that was studied early on is “object permanence”—recognizing that when an object disappears from sight it continues to exist. This kind of recognition is a cognitive milestone for human infants, says Vitale. Evidence for the skill in felines comes from several studies showing that they can easily solve “visible displacement” tests in which they see an object disappear and then search for it where it was last seen. Researchers say that not only do cats easily master this type of test but that the older they are, the better they become at solving the problems posed. But that’s not why cats love laptops.

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Cats have an internal clock

Yet another early study looked at whether cats have an internal clock. It stands to reason that they would, Vitale says, because felines are active during dusk and dawn. “Having natural cycles, knowing when they need to hunt and need to rest, makes sense for them,” she says. Notably, when cats live alongside us, they’re smart enough to readjust their natural behaviors. “He got out of bed. That’s a signal. It’s light outside, so it’s time to eat. Many of these things get associated, and cats track them that way.” This is called associative learning. One thing you won’t find them eating are cucumbers! Learn why cats are afraid of cucumbers.

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Cats pick up on cues

Vitale’s lab focuses on cats’ social cognition, or how they perceive and act upon social stimuli in their environment. One way to test for social cognition is to examine how cats pick up on human cues. This is called social referencing, or a cat’s ability to use a person’s emotional reactions to evaluate an unfamiliar situation and adjust his or her behavior as needed.

In one test, Vitale has a cat owner act either afraid or happy toward an object, in this case, a fan with streamers, which a cat might well find frightening. Vitale waits to see if the cat picks up its human’s emotional cues. “If the owner’s afraid,” Vitale asks, “is the cat behind the owner, looking nervously at the item? If the owner’s happy, is the cat next to him or her, trying to interact and looking at the item?” Socially smart cats will pick up on their owners’ emotional states. That’s of one of the reasons why cats lick you.

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Cats can bond

Another measure of social cognition Vitale has been researching is the attachment bond. Cats and their humans are brought into the lab together. “Then we take the owner out, leaving the cat alone in the room. We bring the owner back in two minutes later and there’s a reunion.” When reunited with their human, some cats greet their person, “then go back to exploring the room.” These cats are securely attached, according to Vitale. Other cats go to their human and cling to them. That, says Vitale, is an insecure response. “They’re still upset that the owner left.”

These attachment styles might correspond to the cat’s earliest weeks and months of life. Studies on how early sensory experiences influence brain development and perception show that cats between three and nine weeks of age need to spend time around, and interact with, people to develop healthy socialization behaviors with us. In other words, early interaction with people generally makes for friendlier cats.

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Cats can follow your finger

Early training can help cats stay attuned to human cues like finger-pointing. Indeed, a study from cognitive ethologist Ádám Miklósi, PhD, DSc, and colleagues found that, in general, cats can find cat food when a human points to it. A later study suggests that cats can even distinguish between people’s voices and that our vocalizations elicit measurable changes in behavior. People may view cats as independent, aloof, and self-centered, Vitale says. But when they see how social some of these animals are in her videos, the arguments stop.

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Cats can follow commands

All four of Vitale’s cats (Bo, Macy, Carl, and Kevin), know to sit, come, and stand. “It’s something they do every day,” the cat cognition researcher says. “I have all of them sit for their food.” But Bo is especially intelligent. “He knows the commands stand, high jump, jump over an obstacle, high-five, ring a service bell and more.”

Most people are skeptical when Vitale explains that cats are smart enough to be trained, but they need only watch her YouTube training videos to be convinced. Signs of cat intelligence: Your cat quickly learns new tricks; easily differentiates between different events and/or items; rapidly solves food puzzles; and is very responsive to your emotions, gestures, or pointing cues. Here’s how to train a cat to do five life-changing things.

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Test your cat’s follow-the-pointer skills

Try this test: Put one treat under a cup to your left and another one under a cup to your right. Point to the cup you want the cat to go to. Only give the treat if she goes to the correct cup. Do this 10 times. How often does she choose because you point at it, rather than because she smells it: (a) seven out of 10 approaches; (b) fewer than seven approaches. Aside from wanting treats, here are a few things specific cat behavior is telling you.

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Test your cat’s sense of object permanence

Test: Hide a favorite toy. Show your cat a favorite toy (like a catnip-filled “mouse”). Place the toy behind a piece of furniture where it is relatively easily accessible. Watch his behavior. Does he (a) immediately retrieve the toy; (b) stay put?

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Test your cat’s problem-solving skills

Put a treat or a toy inside an egg carton and see if your cat can open the carton. Does she do this: (a) very quickly; (b) very slowly? Not at all? Find out why cats love boxes.

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Test your cat’s understanding of behavior

Sit on the floor. Ignore your cat for one minute, then pay attention to him for one minute. Does his behavior change, depending on your attention toward him? In other words, does he: (a) interact with you in some way; (b) ignore you completely? Keep an eye out for ways your cat shows affection.

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Test your cat’s ability to differentiate shapes

Cut out a large circle and a square from a thick piece of paper. Place the shapes in front of your cat. At first, reward him or her for tapping either shape. This gets them used to touching the shapes. Choose which shape you want to train your cat to recognize. If it’s the circle, only give a treat for touching the circle. Does your cat (a) catch on quickly and tap only the circle; (b) rarely get it right? It’s true that cat behavior is tough to decode sometimes, so don’t be discouraged if your cat could care less about your experiment.

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Results of your cat testing

If your cat got mostly “a’s”— congratulations—she is a quick learner! If your cat got mostly “b’s,” try providing additional stimulation to nurture cat intelligence. This can include enrichment training, interactive toys, cat furniture for climbing, and food puzzles, as well as exposure to novel stimuli. Think you know your cat? Take this cat trivia quiz and find out.

Buy your own copy of The Meaning of Meow to learn more about your kitty.

Sources: 

  • Kristyn Vitale, PhD, cat researcher at Oregon State University’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab
  • Ádám Miklósi, PhD, DSc, cognitive ethologist

Pamela Weintraub
Pamela Weintraub is a veteran journalist specializing in psychology, life sciences, and culture. She is former editor-in-chief of OMNI, executive editor of Discover, and currently the psychology and health editor of Aeon. She is author or co-author of 16 books, including the award-winning Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic. For the last two years, much of her work’s focus has been on covering animal psychology and the animal mind.