Cats and Dogs: Equal Brain Power?

March 19, 2017
Kerry Lengyel

A behavioral study of domestic cats may have debunked the longstanding belief that dogs are smarter than cats.

The battle between cats and dogs has been a long one, but new research might put cats back on top of—or at least on par with—their canine counterparts. A recent study shows that cats may have episodic memory (the ability to recall specific events) and are just as good as dogs at certain memory tests.

The longstanding belief that dogs are smarter than cats just may have been debunked.

Researchers at Kyoto University in Japan tested the ability of 49 domestic cats to recall basic memories. Study results were published earlier this year in journal Behavioural Processes.

In the study, researchers tested whether the cats could remember after 15 minutes which bowl they had already eaten from and which other bowls were untouched. Results showed that the cats could make the distinction, indicating that they possessed episodic memory—an ability dogs and humans share.

“Episodic memory is viewed as being related to introspective function of the mind; our study may imply a type of consciousness in cats,” says Saho Takagi, psychologist and lead researcher on the study. “An interesting speculation is that [cats] may enjoy actively recalling memories of their experience, like humans.”

The same research team found in a previous study that dogs also had memories of food bowls from which they had eaten.

Last year, results of a Hungarian study showed that dogs could recall their owners’ actions even when the dogs weren’t expecting to be asked or rewarded. In the study, 17 pet dogs were trained to perform one of 6 simple actions (eg, touching an open umbrella) with the command “do it.” The dogs were then trained to lie down regardless of the previously demonstrated action. When the trainer then suddenly commanded “do it,” the majority of dogs imitated the action from the first part of the study, suggesting that they could remember and relive an experience similar to the way people do. When the dogs were tested 1 minute and 1 hour later, many completed the action successfully; however, their memory waned after about a day.

This new feline research demonstrates the similarities between intelligence levels of dogs and cats—cats can match dogs on various mental tests, including responding to human gestures, facial expressions, and emotions—and opens the door to further studies examining the long-term memories of cats and whether the species can remember even more challenging details and facts.

"Understanding cats more deeply helps to establish better cat—human relationships," said Ms. Takagi, currently a PhD student at the university. "Cats may be as intelligent as dogs, as opposed to the common view of people that dogs are much smarter."