There are myriad different ways to test intelligence in animals and in people. For years researchers have used different tests to observe and determine very specific aspects of animal intelligence, and they often study the animals we’ve domesticated, like dogs and cats. We test their ability to communicate, their ability to decipher and learn our own ways of communicating, and we even conduct what’s called Mirror-self recognition (MSR), a behavioral indicator of self-awareness in which we observe how quickly a person or animal is able to develop the simple skill of recognizing themselves in the mirror. Of all animals, Dolphins tend to be the most intelligent in many aspects; often smarter than even humans.
The main idea behind measuring an animal’s level of self-awareness is that scientists believe it’s a strong indicator of basic levels of greater intelligence. “Individuals generally progress through three basic stages: 1) mirror exploration or social behavior, 2) contingency-testing (i.e., performance of unusual & repetitive behaviors at the mirror affording the opportunity to perceive a one-to-one correspondence between the individual’s behavior & the mirror image), and 3) self-directed behavior (i.e., viewing body parts/behaviors unobservable in the mirror’s absence).” It’s believed that progressing through these stages of awareness coincide with the same period humans also start to engage in “pretend play,” develop “empathy and prosocial behavior, synchronic imitation, and may be linked to the development of sensorimotor intelligence.”
For the record, our household pets don’t typically test incredibly high in this particular realm of assessing intelligence, but what about one other really simple, seemingly meaningless everyday interaction between us and our cats or dogs: pointing? In other words, do our dogs or cats understand what we’re actually communicating when we point at their food bowl on the other side of the room, or their favorite toy? Our domesticated friends have lived by our side for thousands of years now and this is one of our most basic forms of communication with them. Gesturing toward “that, over there” seems like a no-brainer, right? And when it comes to cats, specifically, their tendency to come off as aloof, perfectly content to ignore our calls, commands, and gestures, has made it tough for humans to study felines. According to a recent feature in Science Magazine, studying behavior and intelligence of both cats and dogs is valuable to mankind, but we’ve historically favored scientific research with dogs because well, they cooperate. Both animals are possibly the top two species most heavily domesticated throughout human history, at least in the sense that we cohabitate with them. While dogs as a species have worked alongside humans as two social species that rely on packs for survival,
therefore making a seemingly perfect match, cats are descendants of far more solitary animals. Understanding how each has been domesticated can teach us a lot about the broader history and mechanics of domestication, researchers believe.
The story of Ádám Miklósi, a cognitive ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, is equal parts amusing and telling of our interactions with cats at home as well as how their behavior has influenced the lack of research on felines. In 2005, Miklósi attempted to conduct a simple “pointing” study with cats. The objective was to simply observe pet owners pointing or gesturing for their cats to find food. When the food was in plain sight, he found cats and dogs performed about the same in the simple social awareness study. But cats practically lost interest in even participating when the test involved gestures at food hidden within the room. According to the research paper, many cats just “dropped out” of the study, either no longer paying attention to their owners’ gestures or simply walking away from the test site altogether. According to Miklósi, he dropped his research on cats at that point and it was more than a decade before any other researchers were curious enough to pick up where he left off.
There are a few basic tests cat owners can conduct at home in an effort to test their pet’s social awareness and individual level of intelligence. In some cases, the tests can actually help you understand your cat in an effort to and with them. Sometimes, you’ll learn that your cat’s “aloof” demeanor isn’t a sign that they don’t care about you, rather it can be a sign of their trust, going about their business without needing your attention, approval, or affection.
Does Your Cat Know Its Name?
Say a group of words in similar sound and cadence to their name. Space the words out about 15 seconds and eventually, say their name. If your cat stops paying close attention to the random words but then perks up, motions, or turns their head when you say their name, you know it’s something they recognize. If your cat shows that it’s familiar with its name, you can rely on that information to start training them with a variety of basic commands.
Is Your Cat Aware Of Your Emotions?
We can typically tell that our dog’s mood can often reflect our own, trusting that canines are in tune with our emotions. To test this with a cat, you can bring them into a room with an object that would normally scare them, like a running vacuum, for example. When you appear to “make friends” with the object, you can observe whether or not your cat’s demeanor toward or around the object will change as well. This can teach you when it’s important to project a sense of calm for your pet, like when you’re about to take them to the vet.
How Independent Is Your Cat?
Ignore your cat for a couple of minutes. Read a book, a magazine, anything to noticeably take your attention away from your pet. Highly social cats will come to you as soon as you finally beckon them. An independent cat will continue to keep its distance. If your cat happens to be one of the antisocial ones in a test like this, try spending more one-on-one time with them. In this sense, they can be more like humans by becoming more friendly and more social when we make the extra effort.