Sorry cat owners, dogs are officially smarter than their feline rivals

Cats have well and truly cemented their place as the internet’s poster boy species and, up until now, held the crown for being more intelligent than their age-old canine rivals.

Yet, in a dramatic turn of events, it appears cats have been dethroned. According to new research, dogs take the biscuit when it comes to brainpower more than doubling that of cats.

In a new study from Vanderbilt University, a team of neuroscientists, led by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, analysed the cortical neurons in the brains of carnivorous animals. By counting the neurons in different species, the team was able to determine the relationship between the size of a carnivores’ brain and the number of neurons housed inside.

Cortical neurons are the cells in the cerebral cortex that dictate intelligence. They’re responsible for voluntary movement, perception and most importantly, complex thought processes.

It turns out that while cats possess around 250 million cortical neurons, dogs outdo them by a long shot, possessing 530 million – potentially putting the long-lasting debate to rest.


As well as investigating dogs and cats, the team researched other carnivores, including ferrets, mongoose, hyenas, lions, raccoons and brown bears. Credit: Vanderbilt University

“I’m 100% a dog person,” Herculano-Houzel said. “But with that disclaimer, our findings mean to me that dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats.”

Past studies have concentrated on brain size and neural packing capacity to determine brain power and intelligence, but it has never truly provided an accurate picture, which is why counting cortical neurons is more definitive. For instance, a study published in 2015 which focused on brain size, found that cats have 300 million neurons, doubling dogs’ 160 million. These studies didn’t take into account cortical neurons though, which are better indicators for intelligence.

“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,” she added.

As well as investigating dogs and cats, the team researched other carnivores, including ferrets, mongoose, hyenas, lions, raccoons and brown bears. Not only did the researchers find dogs have more brainpower than cats, they also had the most cortical neurons out of all of the carnivores studied.

Elsewhere, researchers found that the brain size of hunter animals did not mean they were brainier than their prey. In fact, larger carnivores like the brown bear had very few cortical neurons for their size, possessing around the same amount as cats.

This study adds more fuel to the ethical debate surrounding the treatment of animals. As the government has just voted down the inclusion of the EU animal sentience law. Say, if these researchers were to investigate the amount of cortical neurons in fox’s brains, could we finally stop foxhunting from happening in this country?

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