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- Popular Science Monthly 1891
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The intelligence of a cat is a pivotal factor in how people relate to the domestic cat. Sadly, a lot of people dislike cats. A lot of people hurt cats thinking the cat is, “only a cat”. What they mean is that the cat is an unthinking animal and doesn’t feel pain as the human species does (i.e. is non-sentient). But the vast majority of people on the planet realise that cats are sentient beings.
Well, all of us who live with cats and love them, know for sure that cats have a level of intelligence beyond “blind instinct” a term used by the author of the article below. The article was written in 1830 by a scientist and concludes that the cat exercises “reason” when deciding what to do.
He cites as a classic example the cat’s desire, in Britain, to find warm places and employs reasoning in this quest. It is a nice, simple yet effective example. The article also gives us a feel for how the cat was perceived in 1830.
Another interesting comment he makes is the theory that the “cat” is not indigenous to Britain because Britain is too cold for the cat. That I think is wrong because the wild cat populated Britain, even in the south of England in the 1830s, although at that time, it was gradually retreating to Scotland (see Scottish wild cat sightings). The wild cat can live in cold climates. The wildcat is the direct wild ancestor to the domestic cat. However, this is probably a reference to the Near Eastern wildcat, the direct wild ancestor of the domestic cat which does inhabit the Middle East and North Africa.
However, the domestic cat is no longer suited to the cold through domestication.
|“If a cat does something, we call it instinct; if we do the same thing, for the same reason, we call it intelligence.” Will Cuppy|
Domestication affects intelligence
An interesting research study published on June 9, 2021 sheds some light on domestic animal intelligence. They concluded that dairy cows have brains which are 30% smaller than their wild ancestors and the same effect is seen in pet dogs and horses. They say it may be due to breeding animals for docility. I’ve long said that the wild cat hybrids such as the Savannah cats and Bengal are smarter than the Persians. The former have some wild DNA in them which injects intelligence while the Persians are bred for docility. The study also suggests to me that non-purebred cats might be more intelligent than selectively bred purebred cats. The research indicates that animals had smaller brain sizes in breeds with “more intense human interaction” and those that were “selectively reared for obedience”. Although they do not go into the discussion about brain size and intelligence so smaller brain size might not necessarily mean less intelligent. I believe that inbreeding (all purebreds are inbred) tends to reduce intelligence.
My personal experience of cat intelligence and reasoning comes from my cat. There are many examples. One just occurred this morning when she woke me up. First, she asks in a calling voice. This is quite a loud voice. If I don’t respond (because I am half asleep) she calls again and again with her voice increasingly demonstrating irritation at my lack of response. This is a clear demonstration of the emotion of irritation, which is quite a high emotion that I am sure a lot of people would say is only found in the human species. Who thinks cats can feel irritated? Did it cross your mind? One website lists the emotion of irritation under “human emotions”.
There has been considerable uncertainty about whether cats (animals) feel emotions. The scientists tend to say that we should study the behavior and not get too involved with the emotions behind behavior. I disagree. The more we understand cats and animals the more likely we are to discover that the human species is not quite so high and mighty as some people think. In fact, the general intelligence of animals is gradually being realised.
If a cat can feel irritated it must possess a level of intelligence beyond basic hard-wired instinct of fear and survival. My assessment of my cat is supported by recent research at the University of Sussex, England. They discovered that cats learn to develop their vocalisations to get the desired reaction from humans. We all know who manages who in the house where there are cats!
The cats change the tone and character of their purr to incorporate a sound that “pushes the button” by tapping into the instinct of a human to care for a baby. It is a sound that people find hard to ignore and the cat has learned to do this through “operant conditioning”, which is the voluntary altering of behavior based on the consequences of the altered behavior. This is a very subtle learning process and my cat’s irritated meow that I refer to above is exactly the same thing. Is my cat then simply changing the sound of her voice to one that gets a response or is she genuinely irritated? Has my cat learned from my partner and I and how we communicate? Now that is a thought! Perhaps she has seen that when I shout at my girlfriend something happens! Not usually the right thing…
You can hear the difference in the purrs referred to above by clicking on this link. The first purr is the standard purr, the second one is the purr that was learnt to get food from the person: Exploiting purr.
Incidentally, personally, I am not convinced by the above research on the “exploitation purr”. It may just be a heightened purr. A purr that demonstrates greater levels of contentment. I have heard this purr before and took it too mean real contentment reflecting the fact that food was about to be served (note: the purr does not always mean contentment – see also How Do Cats Purr and Cat Sounds).
However, I do believe that cats can learn from us. Learning by example is the classic route. An example of this is recorded in the Popular Scientist of 1930. In those days there were oil lamps and coal fires. In this instance a cat got some oil on its back which caught fire besides the coal fire. The cat dashed outside and jumped in a pond to extinguish the fire. All was well. Its cat intelligence had allowed it to learn that water puts out fire as the people in that house had put out the coal fire, daily, with water.
Another old, but nonetheless interesting, article on cat intelligence was written in 1912 based on rather basic research. The research was an attempt to answer the question as to whether our cats and dogs were able to think. Assessing how they were able to escape a cage the researcher concluded:
“According to these results the dogs appeared most intelligent, the cats near to them, and the chickens far behind”
By implication the professor (Thorndike of Columbia University) agreed that cats had a level of intelligence.
This is based on the well-known Animal Planet television station intelligence scale. Start here to see all the breeds. It is clearly a bit light hearted and tongue in cheek. The general opinion is that the skinny cats e.g Siamese family of cats and the wild cat hybrids e.g. Bengal are smarter than the puddings e.g. Persian family of cats.
The following got (note: on review I am not sure about this ranking but am unable to check as the Animal Planet website is no longer accessible to residents other than in the USA.
Bengal (see video of Bengal cat “Hunters Moon” below)
The next level are these cat breeds (8 stars)
Norwegian Forest Cat
And in the middle ground of the cat intelligence league are these breeds:
Exotic Shorthair (short haired Persian)
Himalayan (pointed Persian)
(source: Animal Planet)
To which must be added the other wild cat hybrids such as the Chausie, Savannah and Safari. These are all generally skinnier and more inquisitive and active cats. At the other end of the scale the more docile cats such as the Persian are claimed to be less intelligent probably because in being docile they learn less through experience. See all the breeds by starting here: Pictures of Cat Breeds.
I can personally vouch for the Sphynx cat’s intelligence. And the Pesian is known as a piece a furniture and is probably the most suited to full-time indoor living.
There is also the intriguing thought as to whether the domestic cat will, over time evolve into a more intelligent animal. At the moment it is the wild cats and wild cat hybrids that tend to exhibit the highest levels of intelligence because a wild cat has to constantly exercise its brain to survive under difficult circumstances.
But the domestic cat lives with the smartest animal on the planet, the human species and should over time, say tens of thousands of years, learn from his or her human companion. As mentioned above, cats are learning to find what turns humans on, what pushes the right buttons. Perhaps this is the first step in the particular evolution of the domestic cat as a separate species of animal (it is currently a domesticated small wildcat albeit considerably evolved already and the Sunquists classify it as felis silvestris catus – a species). If we project into the future it is not beyond the bounds of reason to suggest that the domestic cat could be talking a kind of simply language with their human companion. I am not far from that at present, in fact!!
The oft quoted answer is, yes. Dogs certainly give the impression that they are smarter than cats. But it was suggested in a research program conducted in 1930 (yes, a long time ago but are there any recent ones?) that cats have less of an opportunity to show cat intelligence. They are individuals and not pack animals. The dog, a pack animal, will relate to his master, the person, more naturally and be able to demonstrate his intelligence to a human. Cat intelligence might also be of a different type. There are different sorts of intelligence.
Also in this research (recorded in Popular Science in 1930), one of the tests thought out by a well known animal psychologist of the time, C.V. Hamilton, was as follows:
Four doors lead to food. One door is unlocked. The unlocked door is changed each time. Four animals were compared: Human, monkey, cat and dog. Each was given the same number of tests to get to the food. The number of “trials” (attempts to get at the food before succeeding) for each animal is set out in this table:
Well, it’s proved then, that the dog is smarter, isn’t it? I am still not convinced. Since the 1930s there has been a greater awareness of different kinds of intelligence and cat intelligence goes wider than pure reasoning. The above relates to reasoning ability.
Perhaps science is not as good as our own observations in assessing cat intelligence. This leads to anecdotal evidence but it is still good evidence. We should trust our judgments.
Another story recounted in the Popular Scientist of 1930 tells of the domestic cat who would watch in hiding where his human companion had thrown crumbs to feed birds. Fine, that’s not that smart. But when it snowed the cat cleared the snow and deposited the crumbs on top of the snow and continued to watch! Evidence of cat intelligence.
Memory plays a part in cat intelligence. Dogs have better short-term memories than cats on the basis of one test at least. This is the test:
- An object was hidden behind one of four boxes. Both the dog and cat see the object hidden.
- Cats found the object 75% of the time if the search was carried out immediately. But:
- After four minutes cats picked the wrong box 60% of the time. While dogs got it right 60% of the time.
In another test, however, cats demonstrated good memory but under different conditions:
- Dogs and cats where shown that food was under a lighted box, one of many.
- Both dogs and cats knew where the food was when the lamp was turned off, but..
- After a while (up to 16 hours later) with the lamp off the correct box was selected by cats while the dogs had forgotten.
Perhaps the second test suited cats because of the cat’s eyesight abilities, making the light more memorable. (source: Play It Again Tom by Augustus Brown).
Dogs remember their masters voice and face. This is well known. But my experience tells me that the same is very much the case with cats. My cat can istantly recognise my voice and can recognise me from a good distance, 30 yards away or more and she is 17+ years of age (this equates to great old age in humans).
The above is an extract from Popular Science monthly 1891! Below is the video evidence 2008. Cat intelligence goes largely unrecognized but the closer you get to a cat the more you see of it.
Update Oct 2010: I have recently come back from Malta, visiting the cat rescue operation of Martha Kane and her partner Richard Vella. They care for many rescue cats. Richard, who has a good amount of human intelligence, pointed out a cat that he said was intelligent. He said this with complete certainty. The cat’s name as Sooty. Some cats are obviously more intelligent than others. You can see Sooty on this page (just scroll down): Introducing Martha Kane’s Cats. Intelligent cats tend to get their way and are alpha.
On another subject, both my mother (now deceased) and sister have kept purebred cats. My mother kept Burmese (3) and my sister the British Shorthair (2). One individual of each was inordinately stupid. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I am not insulting cats. It was transparently true and I put it down to inbreeding (link opens in new window) You can form your own views.
I am sorry that this page is somewhat haphazard but I have added to it over the years. I want to make one last point which is negative about cat intelligence. Cats are incredibly quick when they act instinctively but when they try and engage in rational thought and reasoning they are slow. An example would be this. My cat likes to come on my lap. I tap my lap to invite him. He knows that this is an invite. He wants to be on my lap but it takes him about 10 seconds to process the invitation and act upon it. I take this to mean a slowness in rational thought, an aspect of intelligence.
What Other Visitors Have Said
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This is an extension to a previous post I made on the PoC Blog: Cat Intelligence (new window).
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