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Feline Intelligence: How Your Cat’s Brain Works

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Ivan, my 12-year-old Siberian, is a brainiac. It’s a challenge sometimes to stay one step ahead of him. When he was about four months old, he learned to open a cabinet door to get his favorite toy. He then transferred that knowledge to other cabinets and various types of closet doors not only in our home but also in our pet sitter’s home. One day I heard a slam-bang noise and discovered Natasha, our diva cat, opening the original cabinet, under Ivan’s tutelage. Ivan’s behavior is the definition of intelligence in action, and many cat parents tell similar stories.

Feline intelligence—no, it’s not oxymoron. Cats are among the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom. They often get short shrift on the perception of intelligence, especially when compared to dogs, but not because dogs outsmart them. There are simply a greater number of studies about intelligence, memory, and cognitive abilities in dogs, and that research doesn’t transfer to cats. Much of the information about feline intelligence comes from cat owner anecdotes, plus the few studies designed for cats to give us a glimpse into the unique feline intelligence.

Intelligence is defined as the ability to learn from an experience, retain that knowledge, and use it to solve problems in a new environment. Intelligence is seated in the brain, but while a cat’s brain measures about two inches, weighs between 0.9 to 1.1 ounces and occupies about 0.9 percent of their body mass, it is surface folding and brain structure that are most important in assessing intelligence, not brain size. The feline brain’s structure and surface folding is 90 percent similar to that of humans. In humans, the cerebral cortex, the region of the brain that controls thinking and rational decision-making, contains 21 to 26 billion neurons, or nerve cells. Cats have 300 million neurons compared to dogs with 160 million neurons. This high-octane brain power fuels feline intelligence.

The cerebral cortex not only governs higher functions of rational thought, but also problem solving. It’s also the storage area for short-and long-term memory. Memory is how the brain stores, recalls and uses information learned from past experiences. Episodic memory is specific to an individual; it’s long-term memory of “what,” “where” and “when” experiences and specific events from an individual’s life. A new study has shown cats can recall and use information of “what” and “where” from a single experience.

Like humans, cats learn by observation and doing. Examples include opening doors, ringing bells and turning on light switches. This is procedural memory, and cats excel at it. Research shows these memories last 10 years or more. Cats associate the memory of an event or place with the emotions they experienced in the surroundings or locations. They will remember experiencing traumatic stress, pain or fear in the veterinarian’s exam room. Fortunately, they remember positive experiences, too, especially when food or play is involved.

Based on several studies, behaviorists believe an adult cat’s intelligence is comparable to that of a 2-year-old human toddler. Studies have shown cats have object permanence recognition, an awareness of objects that aren’t directly visible. That is, out of sight doesn’t mean vanished forever.

Human babies progress through the concept in six stages within their first two years and reach a true understanding of the fifth stage when they are approximately 12 months old. Studies show that cats mastered Stage 5, in which they saw a desirable object such as tasty food, and then it disappeared behind a box. The cats searched for and found the food. Studies of Stage 6 have shown mixed results. In some, cats were unable to reach Stage 6, invisible displacement, in which the object is hidden without the cat seeing it moved. Other studies found cats capable of Stage 6 object permanence when a different, more species-relevant methodology was used.

Cats are able to hold an object in mind and reason where it may be. Stash toys in a cabinet or treats in a drawer where your cat can’t see them? He still knows they’re there.

Cats clearly have a superior ability to learn new information, mesh it with existing information, recall it, and use that information in other situations. This cognitive ability makes them card-carrying members of the highly intelligent class. We may never know the full depth of feline cognitive abilities, but their keen aptitude continues to surprise us.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT

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