Does having a bigger brain really mean your dog is smarter?

New study says that dogs have bigger brains relative to their body compared to cats. But does that mean that dogs are actually smarter? Or that cats are dumb?

The study published by researchers at Oxford University charted the evolution of mammal brains over the last 60 million years. They scientists found that mammals such as whales, dolphins, dogs and humans, tend to have larger brains relative to their body size when compared to more solitary species such as tigers and rhinos.

The co-authors, Dr. Susanne Shultz and Dr. Robin Dunbar state that these findings suggest that the cooperation and coordination needed for group living can be challenging and over time some mammals have evolved larger brains to be able to cope with the demands of socializing. Dr Susanne Shultz, who led the research, points out, “Dogs have always been regarded as the more social animals while cats like to get on with their own thing alone.”

To many readers this might suggest that dogs must be smart and cats must be dumb. But let’s think about this more carefully. First, this study didn’t actually measure intelligence in animals, just brain size. And brain size isn’t the only thing. For instance parrots have tiny brains compared to cats and dogs, yet most animal behaviorists would agree, the average Macaw or Cockatoo is much smarter than the average dog.

Secondly, the suggestion that dogs are smarter fails to ask, smarter at what? It’s true that dogs are very social and have a rich repertoire of social tools and body language built into their brain for handling conflict as well as for forming friendships and alliances with others. But does social aptitude equal smarter for the job? A look at the world’s physicists and engineers clearly says “Not!” A psychologist friend of mine whose task it was to measure the mental and emotional IQ of highly skilled computer tech firm employees once told me something to the effect of, “When we measured the IQ of these scientists, they were way high, but when we look at their emotional IQ, they were well below average.”

I propose that this is the same for cats. Certainly many cats are not very social, partly because they were not socialized during kittenhood, the way puppies are. And most cats do not know many tricks or behaviors on cue the way dogs do. On the other hand if you ask any of my colleagues they could tell and show you, that cats can learn many tricks and can learn to respond well to common cues such as sit and come when called. So what does it say if that as humans we have these potentially trainable cats in our home, yet many cats lounge around the house and get their meals for free? And many have even trained their humans to serve them on demand? Sometimes at 5:00 am in the morning?

I’d say it means, that we humans, with our big brains relative to our body size need to use our brains more because we’re being outsmarted by the little-brained cat.

To see video on cat training go to or visit my facebook fan page (click here) or read the free online abridged version of Low Stress Handling and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs (click here).

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Positively Expert: Sophia Yin

Dr. Yin is an internationally-acclaimed veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist who lectures and teaches workshops to dog trainers, shelter workers, and veterinary staff, and is the author of three books including a veterinary textbook and DVD set on behavior. Her "pet-friendly" techniques have set the standard of care for veterinarians.


4 thoughts on “Does having a bigger brain really mean your dog is smarter?

  1. Linda Michaels

    Thank you Dr. Yin,

    I love your discussion. I found it interesting in my studies in psychology to find that standard IQ tests scale some very specific skills, such as problem-solving ability, and mathematical aptitude, but completely ignore other types of recently recognized intelligence such as artistic, emotional and athletic intelligence, for example, as you pointed out.

    Creativity and athleticism may be foundational to adaptivity in the environment. The fittest survive (Darwin), i.e., the most adaptive-- not those necessarily with the highest intelligence. That's pretty smart!

    It seems to me that each niche of "survivors" possess a profound and unique intelligence. That is why I so love and am fascinated by nature.

    The relative intelligence of solo predators (cats) vs social predators (canines) presents another interesting investigation. Social skills and group interactions certainly require intellectual and emotional skill, but I imagine the lone singleton cat who has no supporting cohorts must possess abilities equally worthy of admiration.

    I hope to meet you one day soon. Thank you for the companion animal handling tome!
    Kindest regards,
    Linda Michaels, MA Psychology, Cert. Vet Assn't, Victoria Stilwell Licensed Trainer and Behavioral Consultant, CPDT

  2. debra

    Recently we just moved with my mother, she has Pompeian, and I have a papillon. The Pompeian her is Oreo she is very pretty, the papillon his name is Rosco, he is handsome. The problem is that the Oreo is jealous of Rosco, she tries to fight him chase around the house, she pees on my moms carpet, barks at everything that moves, especially at night when you try to sleep. And mom won't control her it is out of control here. I want her and Rosco to get along, i love both dogs. When my mom first got her at the pet shop they used to keep her in cage as a puppy, i told my mom you can't keep her in the that cage!! Those kind of small dogs should never be caged. And know she is so mean, you can't even close the doors in the house because she will bite your ankles!!! She is very territorial need your help to fix this problem, concern daughter in Douglasville Ga, Debra Prewitt

  3. debra

    Victoria it is me again, need some tips on how a Pompeian and a papillon to get along, My dog which is the papillon is a very timid animal does not like to fight, He is very friendly loves everyone, Know the Pompeian she is very territorial!! She is mean to the bone, and problem came when my mom first got her, she kept her locked up in her cage. And that we have moved in, she wants Oreo to be like Rosco. My mom thinks Oreo is a person it is really annoying! NEED YOUR HELP!!!

  4. Kent Casparis

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I came across this board and I find It really useful & it helped me out much. I hope to give something back and help others like you helped me.

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