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Are cats smart? Part 1, Answering the Big Question


Are cats smart? is a dumb question, but many of the answers from self-appointed experts are dumber.

By David Stone

Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

How Smart Are Cats?

When you think about it, it’s a nonsense question. Like, Compared to what?

Are cats smarter than a fence post? Dogs? A Nobel Laurette?

How do we compare…? Should we judge their ability to read, drive a car and shop at Costco, things no cat wants to do?

brown tabby cat looking at a fish stall
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Instantly irritating articles usually start with how cats measure up to humans. Children, that is, as if they should be a cat’s gold standard.

Others think the answer lies in comparison with dogs as if there’s a consistent standard for all dogs. Or whales. Or butterflies.

It gets weird.

Psychology Today thought counting neurons might be enlightening, but neurons are processors of information, not units of smarts, and they’re distributed in wildly different patterns depending on the faculties of a species.

It’s all a little weird.

What are we doing here, straining to hold onto our superiority?

Growing up in the country, I was taught that animals are automatons, driven by instincts, not inspired creatures.

I thought they weren’t very bright, even the best of them.

I didn’t give it a lot of thought.

It started with George

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Until my wife, frustrated by a local regulation prohibiting dogs and encouraged by a cat-loving friend, brought home George, a two-year-old tabby with a paint splash of white from his chest to his stomach, my curiosity wasn’t stirred.

But George put a stop to that. Soon, I was haunting bookstores, looking to learn about this fascinating animal.

It started with how deftly George adapted to us. And expected us to adapt to him.

On his first night, he demanded that we share our bedtime bowls of frozen yogurt. Fair is fair, after all.

Maybe you can relate.

Forget for a moment that George — and all our succeeding cats — got fed before either of us had coffee or tea in the morning. We still drag ourselves off to work, rain or shine, only when sure he was warm, comfortable and fed.

Why had humans evolved to treat another species with such deference, and how the hell did they get away with it?

How did it get like this?

It wasn’t as if George protected us against rodents, the old standby, and he didn’t seem to want a job. What for? He had us.

This scenario plays out all over the world. We cater to cats. By why?

gray cat yawning
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If evolution’s grand shaping of life fascinates you, you have to wonder how that all came about.

Are they really smarter than us…?

Are they smarter than us or just better adapted?

Related: Are Cats Smart, Part 2

You can’t say there’s anything like a fair division of labor. Or any such thing as a cat kind of labor at all.

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George’s utter coolness and lovable nature made him a thing of wonder and enjoyment. Over time, I watched him master his universe.

Training us to wait on him and be vigilant about his rights to comfort and shelter was basic. Then, he took it further.

Cats are nosey, and if given enough leeway, they’ll find out everything about everything within reach. Inventorying our apartment was a given. Then, he decided to take on our neighbors.

My early mistake was to encourage him to come out for walks in the hallway of our apartment building. A cat, I thought, needs to break out of the confines of a small New York City apartment and expand his senses.

Soon, it became clear that George had bigger ideas.

Bigger Ideas, Bigger Adventures

That is, he started dashing into our neighbors’ apartments, fearlessly, whenever a door opened. To our dismay, he fired up some sixth sense that let him know if any door was open before he even hit the hallway. It was too late by the time we saw him whiz around the door and out into the hall. Our only hope was to follow him quickly enough to see whose home he invaded.

Thanks to his incredible charm, this behavior never got him or us into any trouble — although we do have some stories —  a remarkable fact in itself.

But now that I’ve gone on maybe a little too long, I need to ask the question that brought us here: how do you measure smarts in a life like George’s?

Compared to what?

Real genius may be in the art of getting what you want — questions answered, mysteries solved, goods acquired or in devising the most interesting experiences your life has to offer.

The latter applied to George.

How smart was our cat? As smart as he needed to be.

Cat Smarts Through Different Lenses

The greatest obstacle to making any sense of how smart cats are is that such a simple question sets a mark for ignorance in itself.

Like, what kind of intelligence are we talking about?

If we limit ourselves to science, rational thinking and intellect, few would object to giving people first-place honors. After all, don’t we lay claim to Einstein, the written word and higher mathematics?

Cats don’t even read Shakespeare.

And there’s a good reason, I’d argue. They don’t really care about that stuff. It’s possible, from my observation, that some are baffled over why we do.

As evidence, cats have been known to try converting people to the good life — or at least appear to — by taking a seat on whatever you’re reading.

What about adaptability? That takes brains, doesn’t it?

How they are smarter…

Is anyone foolish enough to argue that homo sapiens could, as a species, easily fall under the sway of another, very different species, one that’s around ten times larger and stronger?

And do it with such grace…?

I’ll take it a step farther — make that a leap — and point out that, on the whole, cats sport emotional intelligence so much greater than people that it’s hardly worth developing a measuring stick for it.

Yes, we do see stressed-out cats, but compare jittery cats to the instability and unhappiness that has so many humans racing for intoxicants, opioids and desperate distractions like binge television watching and celebrity worship.

By and large, compared to cats, people are an emotional train wreck.

Cats generally seem happy to be inside their skin. A lot of people seem eager to be someone, anyone, else.

The irony all of us who share our lives with cats eventually find undeniable is that cats can be dependent and independent at the same time. They’d beg us for food but refused to stop scratching a favored object, what used to be our couch for example.

Dependence, for a cat, isn’t exactly a weakness.

Although they cooperate up to a point — peace in the valley and all that — they do not bow down to a leader as dogs (and people) will.

If you want an example of true genius, try that one on for size. Thank you for visiting Deborah Julian Cards & Prints on Etsy.

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