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Paws for Thought: Cat Intelligence

By: Judith A. Stock

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As a pet owner, you've probably swapped stories and bragged to friends and family about the clever antics of your beloved cat. However, is your prized feline really smart or just doing what comes naturally? Let's see how the cat family shapes up on the intelligence scale.

"Cats certainly are intelligent; they learn and can act on what they discover for their betterment," says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, director of the animal behavior clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Boston, Mass.

According to Dodman, the cat and the human brain are structurally similar. Cats have frontal, temporal, occipital, and parietal lobes of their cerebral cortex, as we do, and these brain regions are composed of gray and white matter, as they are in humans. And the various brain regions are connected in the same way as they are in humans and identical neurotransmitters are employed in conveyance of data. There are functional parallels, too. Cats appear to think similarly to humans, receiving input from the same basic five senses and processing the data received just as we do.

"However, cats have limited color vision and can't appreciate contrast as well as humans," says Valerie Creighton, DVM, The Cat Doctor, Thousand Oaks, Calif. "But, then again, cats don't really need full color vision." "But cats can track moving things much better than humans," she explains. "A cat might not see a small black fly on a white wall, but when the fly takes off, the cat has no problem tracking it."

Cats, like people, have short-term and long-term memory functions. Having short and long term memory is the reason cats can remember where the litter box is when it has just been moved it (short-term memory) but can also remember things learned years before, like what the litter box is for (long-term memory).

Playful Kitty

Play is more than simply enjoyment and fun in the animal world. It establishes social order, prey capturing skills, and generally hones the creature for survival.

"When kittens are playing, they are having fun," says Dodman. "But, in addition, they are exercising their minds and bodies in rehearsal of their adult roles."

The first two to seven weeks is a critical learning period for cats. This period is when cats can bond closely with their associates. For the feral cat, this critical period passes without human exposure and the result is a permanent mistrust of human kind.

"Cats are trainable but training them can be more tricky than training a dog. They're not wired to care so much about pleasing others (us) as dogs are," says Creighton. "To train a cat to do tricks, like jumping through a hoop or fetching an object, you need to find a cat who really loves food, and then use food as a reward."

According to Creighton, cats in the wild are loners. But other experts say that their solo existence may be more to do with lack of opportunity than lack of motivation. Being differently inspired than dogs, cats will fetch ... but only when they're in the mood, since it's for their enjoyment and not simply to please you.

Cats learn from observation. They learn how to open doors, for instance, by watching us do it. According to Phyllis Cambria, Coconut Creek, Florida, her cat Muffin had an affinity for opening the storage closet. "Muffin had full run of our apartment except the storage closet, full of cleaning supplies. Repeatedly, I found her curled up on the mop in the closet. The latch required the knob be forcefully turned and pulled out before it opened. One day as I spied around the corner, there was Muffin getting into a crouching position. She leaped toward the doorknob, grabbed it with both paws and dropped to the floor, twisting the doorknob on her way down to the floor. She repeated this maneuver six times before the door latch finally popped. We finally discovered just what a 'Houdini' our Muffin turned out to be."

Cats and dogs are not different in how they learn but they do have fortes of learning. "Each species learns better within its own niche. Dogs easily learn to dig a hole in the snow to get away from the cold wind," says Dodman. "A cat might never learn to dig a hole because hole digging wasn't what cats were designed to do. But a cat will cover up urine and feces whereas a dog won't."

It takes positive reinforcement and lots of patience to train a cat to do tricks but cats can be trained to sit, lie down, and jump through hoops on command. Clicker training is a good way to achieve such ends.

According to Carole Moore, Jacksonville, N.C., her cat Rosie takes the prize for the smartest cat. "Rosie can open doors by turning the doorknob. He can pull open drawers and rummage around in them, find the things he wants and flip them out with his paw," said Moore. "He loves the pantry and will open the louvered doors, stand on his hind legs and flip down packages of marshmallows."

Senior Cats

As cats advance in years, like humans, they may start to slow down, sleep more during the day, and may even forget where the litter box is located or what it is for.

There is a reported syndrome called Feline Cognitive Dysfunction (FCD) similar to Alzheimer's in humans that includes disorientation, reduced social interaction, sleep disturbances, and loss of house training. In this condition, there are degenerative changes in the brain that cause the functional impairment.

So from youth to old age, soup to nuts, it seems that cats have sophisticated brains that to help them develop into the intelligent creatures they are. And like us, they may eventually experience a deterioration in learning ability and memory that affects them adversely in ways similar to those occurring in poorly aging humans. With all this evidence in favor of their intellect, how could anyone doubt that cats are intelligent, sentient creatures. And how would anyone doubt that their psyche might be positively or adversely affected by circumstance and experience. But that's another story, or as the cats might say, thereby hangs (another) tail. Viva la intelligence!

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