How Smart Are Cats? Everything We Know About Their Intelligence

Written by Megan Martin
Published: July 21, 2023
Share on:


Cats have always been somewhat of a mystery to humans. After all, cats did choose to domesticate themselves. However, just how smart are cats? When it comes to non-humanoid intelligence, you’ve likely heard about dogs, pigs, and dolphins, but rarely are cats considered in such regard. 

But don’t worry, if you’ve wondered just how smart your cat is, you’re not alone. While they’re not as greatly studied as some other species in terms of intelligence, the research is out there. If you’re interested in learning just what’s happening behind your feline friend’s eyes, keep reading below! The answers may just surprise you. 

Decoding Feline Intelligence: Understanding the Cognitive Abilities of Cats

One of the most surprising things about feline intelligence is how closely related it is to that of humans. Now, this isn’t to say that cats and humans have the same level of intelligence, or that they use it in the same ways. Instead, the similarities come more into play when considering the actual structure and processes of the brain in regard to cognition.

Handsome silver tabby 10 week old Maine Coon cat kitten, laying down side ways. Looking at camera with greenish eyes. Isolated on black background.

Even at a young age, cats are able to solve problems and communicate.

©Nynke van Holten/

First, let’s take a look at the brain itself. Specifically, the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is also known as gray matter. It is the outermost layer of the brain. This is the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, planning, and perception. For humans, the cerebral cortex contains up to 26 billion neurons. For cats, the cerebral cortex has around 300 million neurons. While this may seem like a big difference, most scientists actually judge the intelligence of cats to be around a human toddler, specifically a two-year-old.

What’s most similar to humans and impressive for feline intelligence is their use of memories. Studies have shown that cats have the ability to not only recall memories but use that information in their day-to-day life. They’ve been known to retain their memories for up to a decade, and they can even learn just through observation. This means that if your cat sees you turn on the light switch enough and has access to it, they may just begin to copy that behavior!

Understanding exactly how the cat brain works and what they’re able to understand is just the first step, however. Keep reading below to learn more about feline problem-solving, memory, and how their intelligence compares to other animals.

Problem-Solving Prowess: Exploring the Cleverness of Cats and Their Adaptive Skills

Above, we compared the intelligence of cats to that of a human toddler. This is most evident in their problem-solving abilities. Like human children, cats learn through trial and error. They will attempt a new task multiple times in order to receive the results they desire. When it comes to human behaviors, such as turning on or off a light, they will often first observe how we behave. They will then imitate our behaviors, fine-tuning each attempt until they are successful. 

For cats, problem-solving and puzzles is a hands-on (or paws-on) tasks. Observation and imitation are only one step in their process; their trial-and-error tendencies allow them to be the great problem-solvers they are. Here is an example that highlights these skills in action.

Say you were to give your cat a relatively simple puzzle, such as a container they need to open in order to receive a treat. To help, you first demonstrate to them how to open the toy and show them that the treat is inside. Your cat will use the information they observed from you and imitate how you opened the container. If they are not at first successful, however, they will continue to work independently until they open the toy and receive their reward. 

Learning and Memory: Unveiling the Capacity of Cats to Acquire and Retain Information

The memory of a cat can be interesting. This is because, while they do have long-term memories and even lifelong memories, their short-term memory can be a bit spotty. For example, if you show a cat a toy and then hide it from them, they may only remember for a few minutes that the toy is hidden in that location. However, cats can also form lasting relationships (both positive and negative) and have been shown to react to stimuli like sounds as adults in a way similar to when they were kittens.

Most researchers place an emphasis on the type and significance of the emotions. Cats can process and retain traumatic memories throughout their life. They may also remember incredibly positive moments.

In all, like with humans, the memory of a cat very much depends on the cat itself. However, what they are able to remember, they are able to actively use in their life. For instance, remember the treat and toy example from above? If you were to take that toy away and then reintroduce it sometime later, there’s a good chance that your cat would remember the steps to opening it. 

A Cat sitting on a tree

Although memory may vary, most cats have both short- and long-term memory.

©Yiannis Papadimitriou/

Cat Intelligence Compared: How Do Cats Measure Up to Other Animals?

Previously, we discussed how cat intelligence compares to that of humans. However, how does it compare to other species?

Before diving in further, it’s important to understand that, like with humans, each type of animal is uniquely smart. Although our cats don’t perform complex physics or equations, they are still considered to be highly intelligent creatures. Perspective is important to keep in mind when weighing the intelligence of different animals. Although a certain animal may be better equipped or more knowledgeable about a certain task, other animals may still excel in other areas. 

This is most important when considering cat intelligence to that of dogs. Dogs have a larger brain, and thus a larger cerebral cortex and a higher amount of neurons. However, in most cases, despite having what should be a biological indicator of more intelligence, dogs undergo the problem-solving process in a different manner. In the treat and toy example from above, a dog may be more likely to utilize communication and teamwork to get a human’s help with the treat at first.

The main difference in these two species’ intelligence levels is that cats tend to be independent thinkers while dogs are more sociable. However, this is just a generalization of the species and may vary between individuals.

Compared to other species such as ravens or primates, however, cats lack the understanding to use tools. While cats do understand object permanence, that is, that a non-visible item is still there, scientists don’t consider them to have the same level of intelligence as these animals. 

Nurturing Your Cat’s Intelligence: Tips and Activities to Stimulate Mental Engagement

When it comes to your cat, enrichment goes beyond ensuring physical health and nutrition. As learned above, cats are highly intellectual creatures with genetics designed for hunting. Because of this, it is important to take time each day to stimulate your cat’s mind.

Mental stimulation and enrichment are vital for cats. It helps them express their natural behaviors and instincts while also producing a variety of other benefits. Proper mental stimulation can create confidence in otherwise shy cats, increase energy, and decrease the chance of conditions such as depression developing. 

Below are some of the best methods and tips for creating mental enrichment for your cat:

  • Make mealtime and treats challenging with the use of puzzles and slow feeders.
  • Encourage their natural hunting instincts in a safe way through the use of toys.
  • Install a cat tree for them to climb.
  • Open the blinds and allow your cat to birdwatch (or people watch!).
  • Consider if a second cat could be the right addition to your home in order to provide a playmate.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©

Share on:
About the Author

Megan is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is birds, felines, and sharks. She has been researching and writing about animals for four years, and she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in biology and professional and technical writing from Wingate University, which she earned in 2022. A resident of North Carolina, Megan is an avid birdwatcher that enjoys spending time with her cats and exploring local zoological parks with her husband.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.