Pets and their Smarts: They Might Even be Brighter Than US


Pets are smarter than we think!

For a long time, humans have assumed that wild animals are cleverer than pets. After all, cats and dogs gave up the natural smarts they needed to survive in the wild, so they couldn’t be as bright as their untamed cousins, could they? Plus, wild animals do some amazing things. City crows, for instance, use traffic to crack tough nuts. They put their nut on a road near a pedestrian crossing and keep watch until a car runs over it. Then they wait patiently for a red light so they can safely collect their reward. But crows – along with apes, dolphins and elephants – are recognised as one of a small group of really clever animals because when they look in a mirror, they know what they’re looking at. Animals who pass the mirror test are credited with more intelligence because they are self-aware.


Pets are Smarty Pantses

Frans de Waal is a psychology professor who has spent years investigating how animals think. He is torn by this distinction between animals who pass the mirror test and those who don’t. In his book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, he notes that many animals who never recognise themselves in a mirror are still clever enough to ignore it; some even use it to find food. De Waal explains that animals’ minds are much more complex than we realise. For a start, they see the world differently because they have senses we don’t. This means that when it comes to how they think, there is a lot we don’t know.

So, are we under-estimating our furry, scaly and feathered friends? In judging them by human standards, are we missing their unique kinds of intelligence? Elephants have been accepted as clever for so long that we even have a cliché about how they never forget. They have three times more brain cells than humans, can differentiate between human languages and give off distinct rumbling sounds to warn against various dangers. But de Waal points out that even the brains of these animals – whose intelligence we have long recognised – are a mystery to us.

Elephants are Brainy

When scientists in Namibia put GPS collars on elephants, they discovered that the animals are aware of thunderstorms from huge distances away and adjust their routes to arrive at a location before the rain comes. Does that mean elephants can sense rain from hundreds of miles away? We simply don’t know.


It’s not just the established ‘intelligent’ animals who can surprise us with their smarts. Meerkats score highly on social intelligence and can tell which members of their group are the best lookouts – when more reliable meerkats keep watch, the rest of the group spends less time looking for danger. And parrots are shrewd investors. A group were taught to recognise tokens that they could exchange for various treats. When offered a token or an immediate treat, they would opt to hang onto the token if they could swap it for a better treat later. There are plenty of people who have difficulty making those kinds of decisions!

Perhaps it’s reasonable that we know so little about the intelligence of wild animals, but surely we know more about our pets? After all, we have lived with them for thousands of years. Surprisingly we know less than you might think. In fact, before 1995, only two research studies investigated the intelligence of dogs; both concluded there was nothing special about man’s best friend. But in 1995, animal researcher Brian Hare gave us a new perspective on canine intelligence. In a deceptively simple test, he discovered that dogs will follow a pointed finger to find food, something no other animal has figured out. It turns out that dogs’ relationships with humans gives them a special kind of intelligence – they are experts at reading behaviour and figuring out social cues.


Genius Dogs

Brian and his wife, Victoria Woods, are leading the fray when it comes to figuring out exactly how dogs’ minds work. They wrote The Genius of Dogs and set up their own research centre. They have even designed an intelligence test for dogs. Dognition Assessment uses specially designed games to test dogs in five basic elements of thinking: empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning. Curious dog owners can sign up for the test to find out which one of nine profiles best fits their furry friend. Do you recognise your pooch in the list?


(10% of dogs tested) – these talented dogs may be a bit too clever for their own good. They can read and understand social cues, but they can also figure things out on their own. If your dog wins you over with a cute look after misbehaving, this could be your guy.


(8% of dogs) – these misunderstood dogs are often considered aloof, but they are really just more self-reliant than the average mutt. They have a wild, wolf-like side that means owners may need to work hard at socialising them. Maverick (7% of dogs) – as their name suggests, they prefer to solve problems in their own way without human help. Their thinking style is closer to their wolf ancestors than most dogs.


(3% of dogs) – the rocket scientists of the dog world. These gifted dogs can draw their own conclusions and solve problems they have never come across before, giving them a flexibility of thinking that indicates real intelligence. Like many geniuses, their social skills may not be top notch.


(15% of dogs) – similar to the first dogs who bonded with humans, these dogs are able to solve problems independently, but they also have the social intelligence to turn to humans when help is needed.

Renaissance Dog

(12% of dogs) – these dogs don’t rely on one thinking style over another, instead they have an impressive flexibility of mind that allows them to use all five basic elements of thinking.


(7% of dogs) – these dogs have good memories and tend to solve problems alone. They are less reliant on humans than many dogs, not because they lack the social skills – they just prefer to do it for themselves.


(22% of dogs) – these dogs take social skills to a whole new level. They may not be as good at independent problem-solving as many other dogs, but they are clever enough to use humans to get what they want.


(16% of dogs) – these dogs excel in social skills and can read human body language like a book. They also have good independent problem-solving skills and can sometimes be mischievous. They are deeply in tune with their owners.

If you’ve always known your dog is an Einstein and you want to get that in writing, you can sign up at – prices start at around €25.


So, what about cats? Just like dogs, they have lived with humans for thousands of years. Have they developed a superior intelligence too? Cats are renowned problem solvers, and most cat owners have no doubt about their furry friend’s smarts but again, science has neglected them. In fact, researchers have only recently begun to take an interest in cat intelligence. You might be surprised to learn that cats score highly on social intelligence and can even pass the pointing test. Researchers have found that cats prefer people to food or toys – yes, really! Plus, they make eye contact in the same way people do, as a means of bonding or sharing information, which is unusual in the animal world.

If you’re curious about your cat’s social intelligence, there are simple tests you can do at home. The most basic is the name test. When your cat is calm and relaxed, say four words of about the same length as his name at 15 second intervals. Then say his name. If your cat reacts less to each word, but turns his head toward you, rotates his ears or moves his tail when you say his name, it’s safe to assume he knows his own name.

Pet Emotions

The next test measures how well your cat tunes into your emotions. Take him into a room with a potentially frightening object he has never seen before (a remote-control toy or robot vacuum cleaner, for example). Sit on the floor and in a calm voice talk about how great the new object is. Let your cat see you touching it. If he seems on edge at first but calms down after observing your behaviour, then he’s drawing conclusions based on how you’re acting.

Cats are considered very independent, but if you have doubt, here’s a test to try. Begin by sitting in a room with your cat while paying him no attention for two minutes. It’s important not to even look at the cat – look at something else instead. Then, call him to you and interact with him. Highly social cats will come when they receive attention while more independent cats will keep their distance.

Does your cat choose you over food? Put a few of his favourite treats and toys at random spots throughout the room. Sit nearby and see what he prefers. It’s a good idea to do this one a few times under slightly different circumstances in case he reacted out of hunger on the first attempt.

Finally, you can do the finger pointing test to see if you have a real genius on your hands. Get two containers or cups and put a treat under one of them. The container with no treat should have been rubbed with some food so your cat can’t just sniff out the answer. Then point at the container with the treat and see if the penny drops.


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