Dog brains and cat brains

In yesterday’s post (Art to make you think), I mused about different ways of thinking. But I was thinking only about human brains. An article in the Wall Street Journal has some interesting insights into the brains of cats and dogs.

I’d never given much thought to the relative intelligence of cats and dogs. In cartoons, cats certainly are more likely to be portrayed as clever, while dogs continually fall for the same tricks the cats play on them. I know it can be pretty easy for my husband to trick our dog; I haven’t had a cat in so long that I don’t know whether they are less easily tricked.

I suppose the stereotype of cats as more intelligent (among people who do think that way, that is – apparently which animal you think is more intelligent depends mostly on whether you are a cat person or a dog person) could be tied to cats being more aloof. I’m sure one can be aloof without being intelligent, but we tend to associate the two. Dogs, on the other hand, often seem to be ruled by emotion, which we sometimes associate with lower intelligence.

The author of this page says that cats have greater emotional intelligence, having a wider range of moods than dogs. I don’t think that’s how emotional intelligence is defined for humans – it has to do with recognizing and managing your own emotions and those of people around you. But it’s an interesting insight.

One measure of intelligence is memory. This veterinarian’s comparison of cats and dogs reports that a dog’s memory is about five minutes long, while a cat’s is sixteen hours. But the WSJ article cites research showing that when food was hidden, the dogs appeared to remember where the food was longer than the cats did.

As the WSJ article points out, where dogs excel is at learning to interpret human communication. They can learn not only to recognize hundreds of words, but to make inferences about the meaning of new words in a way similar to how human children learn. They also are better at understanding our gestures than other animals, even other primates.

This only makes sense, since dogs are social animals and cats are not. Communication is essential to social groups, but far less important to those who live independently. Of course, cat owners often claim that their pets understand perfectly well, they simply have no reason to do whatever it is humans seem to want them to do.

In the end, people tend to rank dogs or cats as more intelligent based on the behavior they value. As this article points out, “If you’re a Cat Person, you know that cats are smarter because they’re independent and clean, and they have an uncanny sense of where they are and how to get home.  If you’re a Dog Person, you know that dogs are smarter because they’re easier to train.”

And as any pet owner can tell you, no individual animal can be expected to be just like others of its species. They have individual personalities and abilities. Which is, after all, what my post yesterday about art and brains was about.

3 Responses to Dog brains and cat brains

  1. Karen O says:

    We have both cats & dogs, & each one adds a little something special to my life. 🙂

    Pauline, recently you mentioned (here or on AJ’s blog, I forget which) about Kyra pulling on the leash during walks. Does that mean the Gentle Leader collar didn’t work out well for you?

    On an unrelated note, I’ve been meaning to ask you how you like your Whirley Pop? I’ve been thinking of getting one.

    • Pauline says:

      Karen, it’s a lot better with the Gentle Leader than before, but I must not have it adjusted quite right, because she still pulls some. I keep meaning to watch the DVD again, but I only think about it while I’m busy walking her, not later when I’m at home and have time. She still goes nuts whenever there’s a pedestrian – she doesn’t just pull, she throws herself into the air trying to get closer to whoever is walking/running by. The rest of the time it’s not too bad, I can control her easily enough but I don’t really enjoy it. I want to maintain a steady pace and she is always either hanging back to smell something or trying to hurry ahead.

    • Pauline says:

      Oh, and I do like the Whirley Pop. We use it probably at least once a week on average. I haven’t used it as much as I planned for toasting nuts, but it works well for that also.

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