The truth is that, at present, we don’t really know (at a scientific level) how intelligent cats are because it is almost certainly the case that scientists have yet to devise experiments and tests which allow cats to demonstrate their true abilities. Also intelligence takes different forms. That is the answer but I will expand on it a little bit.
I think that it is foolhardy to solely assess cat intelligence through the lens of human intelligence. We know that cats think differently. We also know that they are intelligent and can do things that we cannot in using specialist skills. For an example, I recently wrote about a domestic cat spotting breast cancer in her owner and warning the owner of the presence of the cancer. There are other cases of cats picking up these sorts of dangers such as earthquakes. This sort of behaviour requires a certain intelligence. At the moment we don’t know for sure how cats do these things which supports my opening suggestion that we have not, as yet, fully understood the sort of intelligence that cats have.
However, scientists have performed experiments with domestic cats and it is said that the cat’s mental abilities are, unsurprisingly, specifically tuned to their hunting lifestyle. In the wild their lives revolve around hunting.
For example, cats perform badly when carrying out experiments designed for human infants. In one such test an object was hidden in a container. The container was then hidden. When the container reappeared there was no object inside it. The children understood that the object was likely to be somewhere where the container had been hidden and used their imagination to guess where it might be.
Cats were unable to do this. This is probably because this situation has never occurred during their evolution. Prey items such as mice certainly hide inside objects but the objects in which they hide do not move and therefore the test is unsuited to cats.
Another similar example is recalled by Dr Bradshaw. His cat would regularly sniff the bumper of his car. He thought a strange cat was constantly invading his territory. He had no comprehension of the possibility that the scent marking on the car bumper had happened miles away when the car had been at a different place. Cats don’t relate the world like that: objects within their landscape moving. Trees and rocks are static to a cat and they don’t understand what a car is.
Cats are easily fooled by our manipulations of their surroundings. The cat’s ability to reason appears to be limited when assessing cause and effect. Cats tend to rely on simple associations created through conditioning.
Cats are able to remember where their prey has disappeared to but they store this information in working memory which lasts for only a few seconds. It seems that a cat decides that it is not worth continuing to search for highly mobile prey much longer than about 3 or 4 seconds because prey has probably escaped or gone to ground over that time. However, cats are able to remember the last place they saw a mouse rather than simply heading in the general direction.
Bradshaw1 says that “it seems likely that cats, unlike crows or apes, are mentally incapable of learning to use tools.”
He partly bases this assessment on a test. However, he does say that little research on cats has been done which assesses the cat’s comprehension of ‘physics’. By physics he means the way things happen in the world. Cats have a rudimentary knowledge of these things (we are not referring to a knowledge of the science of physics – obviously – but such as things as friction and forces etc!).
In one test, food was attached to a string. Cats gave the impression that they understood that they could retrieve the food treat by pulling on the string with a handle. They gave the impression that they understood that the food treat was connected to the string. However, the conclusion was that the the cat pulled the string because of simple “operant conditioning”. This means the action is arbitrary but it brings a reward in much the same way as a cat can be taught to come on command.
This assessment was made because the scientists added a second string alongside the first one. Only the first string was connected to the food treat. It was possible to see this but despite that the cats pulled on the strings in such a way which indicated that they were unable to predict which would produce the reward. This confirmed that to the cat the string was an arbitrary object and not linked to the food treat. From this experiment Bradshaw says that it is likely that cats are unable to learn to use tools.
Cats, however, “have a sophisticated understanding of three-dimensional space” as would be expected of a skilful hunter.
For example, cats are able to take shortcuts when moving around outside, which indicates that they have a mental map of the area. In other words, if on a prior occasion a cat had encountered a nest of mice at the end of a long walk, on a subsequent occasion the cat may well take a shortcut to the same spot rather than follow the same path. Cats also, like humans, will start off walking in the correct general direction towards their target even through it might take a little bit longer than initially walking away from the object.
As yet, science is unable to quite get into the heads of domestic cats in the same way as an observant and concerned cat guardian can. Intelligent people who live with a cat companion over a long period of time have a feeling about the intelligence of the domestic cat. They understand them. Their intelligence is certainly different to ours in many ways but there are overlaps and I would hope that over the forthcoming years scientists are able to carry out tests and experiments which do justice to this intelligence.
Note 1 Cat Sense by Dr Bradshaw.