Your dog is twice as smart as a cat, and this study proves it

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Amy Swales
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Research claims dogs have better brains, basically. Sorry-not-sorry, moggies.

There are some debates that will go on forever. They may die down at times, have periods of relative calm even, but the divide will always be there: at heart, you’re a dog or a cat person and anyone who professes to love both equally is lying.

At the very least, we appreciate them in different ways. Cats are more self-sufficient. The bestowal of their fickle love is felt to be a blessing. They can very nearly pick stuff up (God help us all if they ever evolve opposable thumbs). Dogs, meanwhile, spread their affection with abandon, take unbridled joy in simple pleasures, have myriad health benefits and save lives. Not that we’re biased, you understand.

And now, science has again weighed in, and declared dogs are basically twice as smart as cats.

A study from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, due to appear in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, says dogs have twice as many neurons in their brains as cats do.

Neurons – described in National Geographic as “basic information-processing units” by one of the study’s authors, neurologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel – point to how “cognitively capable the animal is”.

When comparing brains, the team looked at two different dogs to check whether physical size had an impact, and found that dog brains had roughly 530 million neurons in the cerebral cortex compared to the 250 million in the cat brain, no matter what size dog.

There’s some way to go of course before dogs catch up with humans – we are estimated to possess as many as 16 billion neurons in the corresponding part of the brain – but hey, intelligence manifests itself in different ways and we can’t say we don’t know a couple of people who are slower than our canine pals to pick up on our emotional state.

Neurons are associated with thinking, planning and complex behaviour, and Herculano-Houzel – the university’s associate professor of psychology and biological sciences – says that this points to canines getting one up on their feline friends.

Someone celebrated this news a bit too hard

“I believe 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,” Herculano-Houzel explained in a news release on the university’s website.

“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.”

You may not think this much applicable to your own dog if he’s currently running into a wall or trying to get a large stick through a small gap in the fence, but if a professor says that’s the case, it’s good enough for us.

Previous research into how intelligent or emotionally complex our four-legged friends are has offered up the conclusions that dogs are capable of recognising emotion in humans and forming abstract mental ideas of it, while cats are affectionate – we just misunderstand them.

And anyone claiming dog affection is mere cupboard love can be pointed toward this study claiming dogs want praise as much as they want food, and have a bigger hormonal reaction to us than cats do.

(However, cats are historically better at living in the wild. Make of that what you will.)

A disgruntled cat lover? You should know that Herculano-Houzel does point out she’s “100% a dog person”, so perhaps you can cling onto that.

Images: Krista Mangulsone / Jonathan Daniels


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.