Think Like a Cat to Study Feline Intelligence

While some research scientists’ minds may be in a dither over this conundrum, kitty guardians have absolutely no problem answering this question; cats are extremely smart and downright resourceful.

Feline Intelligence
Feline Intelligence. Photo credit: Flickr User Gatto Mimmo. Words and mods by Michael
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Researchers have such a difficult time deciding whether cats are actually brainy. According to an article in Slate Magazine, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi was trying to reach a “scientific” conclusion about why it is so hard to study feline intelligence. He said,

“We did one study on cats—and that was enough!”

Apparently cats are not the easiest subjects to study. As far as this writer is concerned that is sufficient proof to elevate cats to rank quite high on the I.Q. scale.

While the minds of dogs, chimpanzees, elephants and other creatures have been studied extensively, there is a dearth of information about the workings of the feline brain. David Grimm, an award-winning journalist and the Online News Editor of Science Magazine set out to learn more about how cats think.

After having a really hard time locating scientists who had studied cats, Grimm got the name of Christian Agrillo, a comparative psychologist at the University of Padova in Italy who had done a study on felines. A lot of the research Agrillo had done was working with fish. Grimm contacted Agrillo who told him,

“I can assure you that it’s easier to work with fish than cats. It’s incredible.”

Agrillo studies what is called “numerical competence” to test the animal subject’s ability to distinguish a small quantity from a larger one. The test used consists of placing a different number of black dots on desirable and undesirable objects, though multiple trials Agrillo and his colleagues try to determine if the animals they are studying can distinguish between the two quantities. His team has worked with fish, birds and monkeys who have been quite cooperative; but when they tried working with cats, Agrillo just about gave up.

While horses, dogs, monkeys and fish may be able to count in order to get a reward, it seems that cats don’t think that counting is all that important. According to Grimm, Agrillo’s team always conducts their studies in their laboratory to reduce the number of variables.

However when the cat owners brought their kitties to the lab, most of them “freaked out.” Even the most docile kitties had no interest in the test. Continuing to describe how the “experiment” proceeded, Agrillo ended up with only four cats in the study, and “even they were a pain to work with.” Agrillo told him that

“Very often, they didn’t participate in the experiment or walked in the wrong direction. It was really difficult to have a good trial each day.”

But in this particular case, aren’t these scientists showing their arrogance and are not “thinking like a cat.” Since feline behavior always is goal-oriented, the cats apparently chose the “wrong” direction because it made perfect sense.

While the fish were able to distinguish three dots from two, the cats were more responsive to the size of the dots rather than their numbers. Cats in the wild hunting prey are far more concerned about size over quantity, so it was perfectly natural that the cats were more interested in size of the dots.

In another experiment Miklósi discovered a rather fascinating difference between cats and dogs. He and his colleagues crafted two puzzles. One was solvable, the other was not. In the solvable puzzle the researchers put food in a bowl and placed it under a stool. Both species had to locate the bowl and pull it out from under the stool to get the food reward. Both species did extremely well.

Then the researchers tied the bowl to the stool legs, making it impossible to pull it out to get the food. The dogs pawed at the bowl for a few seconds, and having given up turned to their owners for assistance. The cats, however didn’t seek their owners’ assistance. They just continued to get at the food.

In conclusion, while some folks may still consider that cats are not as smart as dogs because cats don’t realize when a task is impossible, as far as I am concerned this only proves that their behavior is goal- oriented; a sign of intelligence. Grimm says that cats,

“don’t hang on our every word like dogs do, they’re surfing other channels on the dial, making them so hard to study.”

But isn’t it possible that cats don’t want to be studied so make a conscious choice to be uncooperative? According to Grimm,

“Cats, as any owner knows, are highly intelligent beings. But to science, their minds may forever be a black box.”

If your kitties were given an I.Q. test would they be cooperative? Tell us what you think in a comment.

10 thoughts on “Think Like a Cat to Study Feline Intelligence”

  1. Living with cats my whole life has taught me that they are extremely intelligent for the most part. Occasionally you find a stupie one. I believe that their minds are just to busy to be bothered with testing. As for intelligence? Well, opening the refrigerator, self training to use the commode and flushing, turning on the TV with the remote and turning lights off and on seems pretty smart to me and that was just one cat. The intelligence really appeared when we added child proof cupboard clips. It didn’t take long for the cat to figure them out.
    All you have to do is live with a cat to learn what scientists find so hard to research. Cat are very smart.

  2. Interesting article and I think the two quotes from David Grimm were very apt. He seems like someone who knows and respects cats.

    Christian Agrillo on the other hand sounds not so much of a cat lover. His frustrations at their unwillingness to co-operate may have clouded his opinion of their intelligence. He’s also trying to compare a solitary predator with animals who hunt or forage together in groups. That difference alone will account for variations in their behaviours. For example; is the cat stupid because he continues to persevere with an “impossible” task. Or is he showing intelligence and tenacity by attempting different ways to achieve that goal? Is the dog more intelligent because he realises early on the same task is impossible. Or is he lazy/less intelligent because he then looks to his owner to solve the puzzle for him?


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