Friday, May 6, 2011

Are Cats Really Smarter than Dogs or Just Different?

Ok, before I start a major controversy here, I did not conduct this study. Researchers at Oxford University did. They have indeed conducted a study of mammal brain sizes and concluded dogs are smarter than cats because of their relative increase in brain size over the last 60 million years. How did they archive those records? They said dog brains grew more due to their constant social interaction, whereas cat brains stayed about the same size due to being more independent and more solitary creatures. But most animal lovers knew that already right?
Last year a study came to the same conclusion regarding dog intelligence, based on tests involving dogs and cats pulling strings to get rewards. No surprise, the cats didn’t do well at all. We probably have all heard people tell humorous stories of cats completely ignoring humans, and shunning interaction with humans, so why would a research study assume they would be suddenly fully engaged by a test set up by scientists at a particular time and place? We know that cat's own humans and not the other way around!
Dogs, on the other hand, appear to be generally very interested in social interaction, playing with balls, playing/wrestling with each other, and so forth. Visit a dog park on any day and you will see a high level of social engagement, when was the last time you went to a cat park? Perhaps one could say dogs are more task-oriented and since they are descended from wolves, which are very socially-oriented animals living in packs with complex interaction, a test set up by human masters involving simple tasks and rewards is nearly designed for them to excel on. Which is to say humans, being social creatures, made a research test biased towards other social creatures, dogs in this case. A test using sweet foods as rewards would not be indicative of cat intelligence because cats don’t taste sweetness due to their taste buds being different. Now this is news.
For this year’s study, the focus on physical brain measurements depends upon the assumption that an increase in brain size on a evolutionary time scale indicates dogs are smarter than cats. However, there is another assumption involved — that dogs and cats started off with equal intelligence, and dogs increased. Even if dogs and cats millions of years ago had the same size brains, that does mean they were of equal intelligence. It’s possible cats were smarter then, and still smarter now, but have smaller, more efficient brains. What is more likely given that evolution seems to reward creatures with adaptability and diverse skill sets, is that dog and cat intelligences are different, and comparing them is much more complex than simply measuring physical brain size. Like most studies, you must consider the set of variables and come up with your own conclusions.
Dog and Cats are very different animals altogether, but like most things, we love to compare them. I say they both have humans outsmarted any day of the week! Tune in for the next study and be the first to know  specific brain size differences, if any.

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