Archive for January, 2011
One of the most delightful things about having a cat is the way he or she has of surprising us with demonstrations of intelligent behavior. This is not to suggest we are surprised by their intelligence. Far from it – rather, it is their specific demonstrations of intelligent behavior that open our eyes.
One of the strongest indicators of intelligence in any animal – two-legged as well as four – is the possession of a personality. If you think about it, you realize that personality would not be possible unless there were a range of possible reactions to various stimuli by individual members of an animal species. A reptile or amphibian, for example, will react to external provocations in predictable and entirely species-specific ways, with no diversity based on individual identity because they lack any intelligence beyond simple instinct. And the range of personalities in mammals or birds cannot be explained by environmental differences, because even pets who come to maturity and live out their days in the same households will have completely unique personalities, as any experienced pet owner can tell you.
Cats have personalities that are as diverse as can be found anywhere in the animal kingdom. What is really interesting about cats, however, is that their intelligence and their personalities are each a reflection of the other – intelligence makes personality possible, and personality then becomes a vehicle through which intelligence is manifested. The curious cat, for example, will teach himself how to open doors or cabinets with his paws. The outdoorsy cat, on the other hand, will teach himself how to open a screen door with his paws or body so he can escape into the backyard. The cleverness of the individual cat is directly connected to his own unique personalized desires, and this is why they are able to surprise us with the things they do. What we are watching at those moments is our cat’s individualized intelligence and distinct personality both unveiling themselves at the same time, doubling our sense of excitement at the new things we discover about our beloved feline companions.
The intelligence of cats is often compared unfavorably to that of dogs, based on greater brain size and performance on some tests that are supposedly able to measure relative brainpower. However, it must be noted that dogs are more social in their nature than cats, and a large part of the dog’s brain is connected to their social nature, which does not really have much to do with pure intelligence. Also, dogs throughout history have been selectively bred to emphasize certain characteristics or behavioral traits that are considered useful to humans. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that dogs might perform somewhat better on intelligence tests developed by human scientists who may share those same biases about which characteristics in animals are most important or useful to measure.
The intelligence of the cat, on the other hand, is generalized, adaptable to many different circumstances and situations. This gives the cat a flexibility that is often missing from dogs or any other animal that has been subject to extensive breeding at the hands of people. Most likely, cats would never have stood for such treatment, and would have abandoned humanity and returned to the wild long ago if such a thing had been attempted. But because the cat has maintained her generalized, personality-specific style of intelligence, the cat has more ability to surprise us with her individual behavior than any other animal that we keep close to us. So in the end, if you want to know how smart cats are, the only real way to find out is to go to someone who lives with one and ask him or her. No one knows more about the intelligence of cats than those who live with them; because only they can explain the specific circumstances in which that intelligence reveals itself, through each and every individual feline personality.