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. Photo credit: Flickr User Gatto Mimmo. Words and mods by Michael

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.

Please comment here using either Facebook or WordPress comments. Comments are welcome.
Jo Singer

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  • 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.

  • 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?

  • Not ashamed to admit that i have adapted a lot of my cats traits into my own human intuition as a "Speculator entrepreneur".Its not easy surviving in Mumbai and also lead a good life and my cats have taught me to always be on the alert and also never worry much about things or situations that are beyond your control. Yes, i am a bit of a "Cat Man" !Didn't we humans invent the aeroplane after admiring birds in flight ?

  • Well maybe the researchers should've just watched the two amazing tv 2014 documentaries on exactly this, plus more.
    BBC2 Horizon-The secret lives of the cat and BBC Catwatch 2014.

  • Cats like prey that moves. Have the scientists tried to get the kitties to "follow the bouncing ball?" If there was food in it for him, Pancho would give it a go. Cisco wants to know who's asking.

  • Great comments so far! And to keep mine within the ToS, Cats are extremely intelligent. For a wonderful example, read A STREET CAT NAMED BOB by James Bowen. Bob, of course, is a unique individual, as each cat is. There are countless examples of feline intelligence. I would submit that just living so successfully among so many species that can be harmful, such as humans, dogs, etc., in such an often-threatening environment (due to human overpopulation, development, pollution, despoilation, etc.) could only be achieved by an extremely intelligent species.

  • I had a tuxedo cat named Muffin. Muffin learned how to open the cabinet door where I kept all of the dog/cat food. It took him some time. One night, I kept hearing this thud. I looked in the kitchen, and there was Muffin trying, over and over again, to get the door to open wide enough for him to get in. He kept this up for like 30 min. until he finally got the door to swing. From that time on, I had to keep a chair by that door. When I didn't, Muffin would get it open, and, then, all the cats and dogs had a ball eating anything they could open with their teeth. Once, when I was out of town, I left instructions with my house sitter to keep the chair by the cabinet door. She really didn't believe me and left the house one day without the chair blocking the door. I got this frantic phone call from her because, when she got home, the kitchen floor was filled with bits and pieces of whatever food everyone had been feasting on while she was gone...Fortunately, I also kept extra food in the garage so my animals still had something to eat before I came home....I've always said that Muffin was the smartest animal I've ever owned.....

    • I always knew cats were intelligent, but our 2 year old Maine Coon has taken it to new levels. I found it hard to believe till I saw him do some of these things with my own eyes. He take the paper out of the printer... not one by one, but he removes the entire stack and sets it on the floor in one neat pile. Then he lifts and removes the tray!!

      He loves to take apart his water fountain! Yup, he removes the top, takes out the filter and then removes the reservoir too!

      For those who know about plugs in the hurricane impact doors... he takes them out. I have a hard time doing it with my fingers... he uses his teeth!!

      I should have known he was creative when he removed the chrome rings in the overflow drains of our bathroom sinks. (which BTW I wanted to do because my faucets are bronze and the chrome didn't match!! Who knew it could be done! WTG Pickles!!)

      So, there ya have it!! Intelligent?! My cat has it all over us!! Now to just get him to put the plugs back in, and the printer and water fountain back together!!

      • He is the world's handiest handycat. I have never heard of a cat doing the things you describe. Fantastic. Thanks for telling us about your clever Maine Coon.

  • I enjoyed the article. What comes across is that the domestic cat is willfully independent. We know that. They'll do as they please and if you want to get a cat to do something you have to use your intelligence.

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