There is a long-time feud (which I’m convinced will never end) between two distinct groups of people: dog-lovers and cat-lovers. Both sides argue that their preferred pet is better in all aspects of the word—cuter, sweeter, cooler… but mostly smarter. And it seems as if the majority have rallied behind cats with this one, as they’re consistently portrayed as intelligent, while dogs are continuously depicted as dumb.
A prime example is the character CatDog, whom starred in a popular Nickelodeon cartoon of the same name. This creature is half-cat and half-dog—no surprise there. Only the two animals (who were really conjoined brothers) have completely different personalities. And, of course, the cat is the more intellectual of the two, while the dog is naïve and gullible—classic.
While it’s clear that most perceive cats as the more intelligent companion pet, what’s not so clear is why. Maybe it’s because cats are generally calmer, more cunning, while dogs are often more playful and goofy than their counterpart. Whatever the case, new research says not so fast. A study from Vanderbilt University, “Dogs have the most neurons, though not the largest brain: Trade-off between body mass and number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of large carnivoran species”, finds that dogs have significantly more cortical neurons—which are associated with thinking, planning, and complex behavior—than cats do. And that may give us reason to believe that dogs are actually the smarter species.
“I believe the absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental state and their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on past experience,” said Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Associate Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences, who was responsible for developing the technique used to measure the number of neurons. After revealing her own preference for dogs, she insists her belief that the findings mean, “dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can.” And if you’re not buying that after her disclaimer, “at the least, we now have some biology that people can factor into their discussions about who’s smarter,” she explained.
The whole study, however, did not revolve around determining whether cats or dogs are smarter. Instead, the researchers were interested in comparing the number of neurons in different carnivores’ brains to the size of their brains. To do so, they analyzed brains of various domesticated and wild animals, including cat, dog, ferret, mongoose, raccoon, hyena, lion, and brown bear. And while they expected to observe that the brains of carnivores have more cortical neurons than the herbivores they hunt—due to the fact that hunting is more cognitively demanding than an herbivore’s efforts to find safety—this was not the case. Instead, they found that the ratio of neurons to brain size was about the same among small to medium carnivores and herbivores.
So, while their research led to multiple interesting findings regarding various species, the analysis did allow the researchers to observe and compare the cortical neurons in cats and dogs—and say their piece in the never-ending debate about which species is smarter. They found that cats have about 250 million cortical neurons, while dogs have 530 million; this is more than twice as many, which causes the researchers to lean towards dogs being the smarter of the two. And if you were wondering, us humans have about 16 billion each—so don’t worry, you are without a doubt smarter than your pet, whether you’re a cat or dog-person.
Vanderbilt University (2017, November 29). Sorry Grumpy Cat, Study Finds Dogs Are Brainier Than Cats. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 29, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/dog-cat-intelligence-8059/
Alvarenga, D. J., Lambert, K., N. C., Stephen, Pestana, F., Bertelsen, M. F., Manger, P., & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2017, November 27). Dogs have the most neurons, though not the largest brain: Trade-off between body mass and number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of large carnivoran species. Frontiers in Neuroanatomy. Retrieved on November 30, 2017 from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnana.2017.00118/abstract