Feline lovers beware: Study suggests dogs are smarter than cats

For years, the taunt has been that cats rule, and dogs drool. But dog lovers — fear not — it turns out science is on your side.
A new study suggests dogs are twice as intelligent as cats because they have more neurons in their brains. (pixabay.com)
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Originally published on December 15, 2017

For animal lovers, this could just be the biggest story of the year. A scientific study claims to solve — once and for all — whether cats are smarter than dogs.

The study led by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist and associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, suggests dogs are smarter than cats. The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy. 

'It's not that dogs are outliers. They are not. The dog brain seems fairly typical compared to the other non-primate brains,' says neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel. (pixabay.com)

What the number of neurons means

Now, cat people: breathe. This doesn't mean your feline companions still don't reign supreme — they just don't have the same brain capacity to be the brightest, according to the study.

What it comes down to is the number of neurons in the brain, according to Herculano-Houzel's research. It suggests dogs have more. 

"Neurons are the basic information processing units of brains, so the more the neurons that a species has in its brain ... then the larger the capabilities that species should have," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

Neurons are located in the frontal cerebral cortex of the brain and this part of the brain is responsible for "cognition, memory, planning, thinking ahead."

With the domestication of cats and dogs, Herculano-Houzel says we expect dogs to be able to do things, but with cats, 'we have kept them around in a way to adore them, not to make them do stuff for us.' (pixabay.com)

Brain size doesn't matter

In terms of cognitive capabilities, dogs and raccoons seem to rank above cats.- Suzana Herculano-Houzel

In total, this study looked at eight animal brains and counted the neurons in the cerebral cortex of lions, brown bears, cats, dogs, ferrets, raccoons, hyenas, and mongooses.

What Herculano-Houzel found was that the size of the animal didn't necessarily coincide with their level of intelligence. An example of this was the raccoon. 
Raccoons have the same number of neurons as large dogs and some primates, but their brains are the same size as cats. (Pixabay.com)

"Raccoons have fairly small brains, about the size of a cat brain, but they have as many neurons as you would find in a dog brain, which is about twice as many neurons as you would find in the cat cortex," Herculano-Houzel said.

Now cat advocates may not like hearing this, but Herculano-Houzel points out this means "in terms of cognitive capabilities, dogs and raccoons seem to rank above cats."

Humans can be reassured we still rank the highest with 16 billion neurons in the brain, according to Herculano-Houzel.

"We have by far the most neurons in the cerebral cortex, even though our cortex, our brains, are not the largest ones around," said Herculano-Houzel.

Cats have 250 million neurons and dogs have around 530 million neurons, according to the study. (pixabay.com)

So how much hate mail from cat people has Herculano-Houzel had to wade through?

Turns out not as much as she expected.

"It hasn't been as bad as it could have been," she told Tremonti. 

"I'm hoping that people realize that you can always love your pet. Doesn't matter how many neurons it has."


Listen to the full conversation near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.