On 11/9/07, I introduced a Web Poll on our parent website, WebDVM 's home page, polling visitors about which species they feel is smarter, dogs or cats, a debate that has been going on for as long as these two species have been domesticated.
The dogs are smarter camp argue that dogs must be smarter because they answer to their names, come when they are called, and learn obedience and tricks so much more readily than cats. In addition, many fetch, hunt with their owners, and catch Frisbees.
The cats are smarter camp argue that cats are smarter because they generally do not follow, come when they are good and ready to and not on their owner's whim, since they are independently minded and more capable of making their own decisions; not having the need to "follow the leader." In addition, they are incredibly efficient self groomers, and use their front paws almost like hands at times.
At the time of the writing of this blog, there were 60 voters. 70% voted in favor of dogs being the smarter species, with 30% favoring cats as the more intelligent species. So who is right?
The answer to which species is smarter is unequivocally dogs. Dogs are descended from pack animals (wolves) that exhibit complex social behavior. Their existence is not one of equality, but one of hierarchy, starting with the alpha leader, and going all the way down to the lowly omega. This pecking order is essential to survival, enabling packs to formulate sophisticated hunting strategies, and feeding and mating order. Human society in a more highly evolved sense similarly oriented, with social order maintained by hierarchy in government, military, business, clubs and sports.
Dogs readily obey and do their master's bidding because in most cases, dogs view the owner as the alpha leader, being the one that provides food, obedience, and usually are of a physically larger stature. It is inherent in their pack nature to follow and obey their "superiors." Coming when they are called and responding to training are not signs of an animal that lacks the ability to think for itself, but reflect an intelligent intention to respond and react acutely to the signs and signals of its leader.
Cats, on the other hand are by their nature solitary animals, that do not depend on one another for survival, a sign of lower intelligence when compared to pack animals. They do not have the mental capacity to coordinate hunting strategy with others of their kind, nor are they able to create complex social interaction. Feline hunting is performed alone, with the cat operating more on instinct than premeditated planning.
Cats are very stress driven animals, constantly responding in a "fight or flight" manner to even non-threatening environmental stimulus. That is why they are often regarded as cautious and and sneaky. Stress driven existence is not only observable but is also seen quantitatively. On routine blood work, cats commonly have increased blood sugar and increased white blood cell counts though they are not sick. These are considered normal phenomena brought on by the stress of the visit, known respectively as stress induced hyperglycemia, and stress induced neutrophilia. This fight or flight first mentality is another sign of lower intelligence.
So there you have it, the debate answered from an objective, evolutionary, and scientifically based point of view. However, although they may not be generally as intelligent and subsequently social as dogs, cats often transcend their intrinsic nature. Many cats live harmoniously in multiple cat households, are very affectionate to owners and to one another, learn their names, and even come when they are called. Some, can even be taught to do tricks. It does not take pack evolved intelligence to make a loving, fun, and interesting pet!
Roger L. Welton, DVM