Defining intelligence is frustrating because although a testable definition may elude us, we feel we know intelligence when we see it.
– Biologist and author Sonja Yoerg
I know intelligence when I see it. I get to observe my dog Paco every day, and I’m here to tell you, he is one smart pooch.
I bring this up in the context of the age-old question: which animal is smarter, the dog or the cat?
In my biased opinion, dogs are smarter on average than cats. Not better; just smarter.
I reach this conclusion because when I look into a dog’s eyes, I see cognition and awareness. In the eyes of a cat, I see a dimmer bulb. It may as well be a reptile or a bird.
Cats can interact with people warmly and affectionately, no question, but it seems to be on a more primitive, emotional level, not intellectual.
When you point at something, most dogs understand that you want them to look in that direction. Some dogs even use their own gazes to get YOU to look at something. Other animals, even monkeys, never do that.
I did an experiment with Paco recently to test, in my own amateurish way, just how clever and observant he is.
When Paco is indoors and ready to go out for a potty break, he usually approaches and fixes me with a “border collie stare” to get my attention. This is his way of beaming the thought into my head.
When I become aware of this, I get up and head for the door, with Paco scrambling to get there first.
Normally, to get outside, I use either the back door or the garage door. Paco waits for me to commit to one door or the other.
For the experiment, I stood up, went to a point between the two doors, and without committing, simply stared back at him.
Finally, without turning my head, I cut my eyes toward the back door. Instantly, Paco took off in that direction.
The next time I set up the experiment, I cut my eyes toward the garage door. Paco knew immediately what that meant and bolted in that direction.
His habit now is to take his cue from my glance. If he’s too far away, or the light is dim, I point.
That story, I readily admit, is pure, cherry-picked, anecdotal evidence.
The scientific evidence about cat and dog intelligence breaks both ways. In fact, science hasn’t officially made a call one way or the other.
Recently, I read about a study at the University of Michigan that tested the memories of a group of cats and dogs. According to the researchers, the cats in the test group performed significantly better than the dogs.
Being a dog person, I bristled when I read that. How could cats, haughty and disdainful creatures that they are, score better than the noble dog?
But they did. In the UM study, the dogs were able to remember the location of a hidden treat for up to five minutes. The cats remembered the location for up to 16 hours — longer than monkeys and orangutans.
Some cat lovers jumped on the memory study as evidence that cats are more intelligent than dogs.
Remembering the location of the treat is impressive, but it doesn’t prove superior intelligence.
Cats excel in many things — agility, self-defense, self-sufficiency, stalking, stealth. They are models of adaptability and efficiency.
But that doesn’t equate to intelligence. Sharks and crocodiles are well-adapted and efficient. So are snakes and spiders.
The thing is, cats and dogs are so fundamentally different that we can’t find a reliable basis for an apples-to-apples comparison.
Like us, dogs are hard-wired to be social creatures. It benefits them to interact and cooperate. The nature of the pack is to work together.
Cats, as solitary hunters of small prey, don’t have that social imperative. Thus, dogs relate to people, and cooperate with researchers, and make good test subjects; cats do not.
Then there is the huge difficulty of defining intelligence itself. The brain is still a largely unknown organ. Scientific testing is difficult and iffy.
When I read about the UM memory study, I figured it was time to read up on the latest thinking — pun intended — in brain research and intelligence.
Why would I suddenly want to do science research? Well, as a journalism major, I received a rather shallow formal education in the sciences.
But wouldn’t you know, I discovered after college that the sciences — natural and social, from astronomy and physics to history and psychology — interest me greatly. Today, that interest is like a hobby.
But back to the research.
Decades ago, the experts concluded that intelligence is not a single thing, but an array of things. This concept is called the theory of multiple intelligences.
The theory says that humans manifest intelligence in eight specific categories.
(1) Linguistic intelligence — “word smart”
(2) Logical-mathematical intelligence — “number/reasoning smart”
(3) Spatial intelligence — “picture smart” (ability to visualize with the mind’s eye)
(4) Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence — “body smart” (ability to handle objects skillfully)
(5) Musical intelligence — “music smart”
(6) Interpersonal intelligence –”people smart” (understanding others)
(7) Intrapersonal intelligence — “self smart” (understanding yourself)
(8) Naturalist intelligence — “nature smart” (awareness of nature and its patterns)
This theory only addresses human intelligence. But if you apply it to dogs and cats, it underscores how they, like us, differ in strengths and weaknesses.
For example, dogs, as social animals, likely would score higher in (6). Cats, as nocturnal predators, probably would excel in (4). You get the idea.
The logical question from that exercise is: which animal, dog or cat, would have the higher average in the eight categories?
I have an opinion on that.
But what do I know? I’m a journalism major.