Dear cat person, dogs are officially smarter. Regards, science
Turns out, it’s not size but neuron count that matters for grey matter
It ends today. Champions from both camps can rest their weary heads knowing they fought the good fight and finally find some peace in the fact that the battle is officially over. Dogs, confirms science, are smarter than cats.
Dr Suzana Herculano-Houzel, associate professor of psychology and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, believes "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." Dogs, pound for pound of brain, have a lot more neurons than cats. More than double, in fact. While cats can sleep soundly in the knowledge (and they will) that they have a respectable 250 million cortical neurons in their adorable noggins, dogs boast an impressive 530 million. And that, according to Herculano-Houzel, makes them far brainier. Side factoid: you and I can claim about 16 billion neurons each kicking around in the old thinker.
Having herself developed the method for accurately measuring the neuron count in any brain, Herculano-Houzel recently sought to compare different species of carnivores "to see how the numbers of neurons in their brains relate to the size of their brains." The species picked were an eclectic group: ferrets, mongooses, raccoons, cats, dogs, hyenas, lions, and brown bears (oh my). That diversity wasn't accidental, Herculano-Houzel wanted an assortment of brain sizes from both domestic and wild species for study and carnivores easily fit the bill.
Surprisingly, they found that the neuron-to-brain ratio was sometimes lower in larger predators. Case in point, a golden retriever's brain holds more neurons than a hyena. Or a lion. Or a brown bear. That last one is notable. Although a brown bear can grumble all it wants about how its brain is 10 times bigger than a housecat's, they actually share the same number of neurons.
On that note, raccoons were a categorical outlier. Despite having cat-sized brains, their neuron count rivaled that of any dog, or monkey. That rarity is striking for Herculano-Houzel. Racoons are atypical in that "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," she says. Buy better garbage cans.
To recap for any derpy cats who might be reading this (I kid!), neurons, or "little gray cells" in the cerebral cortex are useful for handy mental tools like planning, thinking, and other complex problem solving behaviours. And they're all markers for smarts, say researchers. And yes, a canine cerebral cortex is bursting with them compared to a feline cerebral cortex. Bursting. Don't fight it.
Full disclosure, Herculano-Houzel did go on record to say, "I'm 100 percent a dog person." Animal allegiances aside, her findings are tough to refute. "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". Like good honest work, one presumes. To be fair, there are no seeing eye cats or rescue cats although maybe they're just more humble? New research aside, there remain plenty of scientific reasons to think cats are awesome.
Still, "at the least, we now have some biology that people can factor into their discussions about who's smarter, cats or dogs," adds Herculano-Houzel. Certainly. This, in any case, should satisfy everyone until a cat person with a science background finds some contrary data.
Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen.