A new study suggests domestic house cats may not be as smart as our canine companions. image credit: Lachlan Labere/Salmon Arm Observer

Study finds dogs smarter than cats

Researchers look at neuron numbers to determines species’ intelligence

A newly released study may have put an age-old debate to rest: dogs are smarter than cats.

Despite the air of superiority cats are known for portraying, a team of U.S. researchers have found dogs to be their intellectual superiors.

Vanderbilt University associate professor of psychology and biological sciences, Suzana Herculano-Houzel explains the study focused on comparing different species of carnivorans to see how the number of neurons in their brains relates to the size of their brains.

Herculano-Houzel associates the number of “little-grey cells,” or neurons, with a species’ capacity for “thinking, planning and complex behaviour – all considered hallmarks of intelligence.”

“I believe the absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental state and their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on past experience,” Herculano-Houzel explains in a Vanderbilt University news release.

The study found that domestic cats have approximately 250 million cortical neurons while dogs have about 530 million. Humans, by comparison, have about 16 billion.

“I’m 100 percent a dog person, but, with that disclaimer, our findings mean to me that dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can,” said Herculano-Houze. “At the least, we now have some biology that people can factor into their discussions about who’s smarter, cats or dogs.”

Eight species were included in the study: ferret, mongoose, cat, dog, raccoon, lion, hyena and brown bear.

While dogs may have larger brains than cats, the study shows that brain size doesn’t always determine the number of cortical neurons. Rather, the study found that for the largest carnivores, the neuron-to-brain-size ratio is lower. An example of this is the brown bear. While it’s brain is 10 times larger than that of a house cat, they were found to possess about the same number of neurons.

Meanwhile raccoons, with roughly cat-sized brains, were found to possess a similar number of neurons as dogs.

“Raccoons are not your typical carnivoran,” said Herculano-Houzel. “They have a fairly small brain but they have as many neurons as you would expect to find in a primate… and that’s a lot of neurons.”


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