Canine cognition labs are springing up all over the country, confirming what pet owners have known for years: dogs are SMART! They think abstractly, learn hundreds of words, and pass classical cognitive tests with flying colors. But what about cats? Can we, at last, settle the age old debate of whether cats or dogs are smarter?
Unfortunately, it isn't so easy. Cats are solitary, independent creatures that have been called "the world's most uncooperative research subject" (a far cry from eager, attentive dogs). In short, they are not well-suited to traditional cognitive tests conducted in laboratory settings. The few tests we have (and a wealth of anecdotal evidence) indicate that cats are highly intelligent, but it will take innovative methods to peek inside the black box that is the feline mind.
With eye-tracking experiments, fMRI machines, and other untraditional methods, animals that haven't traditionally been "tested" for intelligence (such as cats, bears, and other non-social animals) can join the ranks of rats, monkeys, and now dogs. I suspect that we will find that "intelligence" is far more widespread -- and less tied to human-like traits, such as sociality -- than we tend to think.
More than any other animal on the planet, dogs are tuned in to the “human radio frequency”—the broadcast of our feelings and desires. Indeed, we may be the only station dogs listen to. Cats, on the other hand, can tune us in if they want to (that’s why they pass the pointing test as well as dogs), but they don’t hang on our every word like dogs do. They’re surfing other channels on the dial. And that’s ultimately what makes them so hard to study. Cats, as any owner knows, are highly intelligent beings. But to science, their minds may forever be a black box.