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Are dogs smarter than cats? A new study looks for answers to that never-ending debate

Dog and cat owners often engage in the age-old debate about which of their beloved pets is smarter. This question, however, has remained challenging to answer due to the inherent difficulties in making a sound comparison between the two species. The complexity lies in their differing natures and the varying success of previous comparative studies.

Interpreting human pointing gestures

In an attempt to provide a clearer understanding, researchers from the ELKH-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group and the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University embarked on a new study. Their goal was to compare how well companion dogs and cats can interpret human pointing gestures under identical test conditions.

Attila Salamon, the first author of the study, highlighted the unique challenges faced during the research. “We tested cats and dogs first in the laboratory, which was quite the challenge for cats,” Salamon stated.

Salamon explained that of the 62 indoor family cats brought to the Department, only 34 participated in the pointing test. The other cats were too shy or unmotivated, despite the lure of their favorite treats. In contrast, no dogs had to be excluded from the study.

Were dogs or cats smarter with pointing?

The testing procedure, as described by co-author Melitta Csepregi, was straightforward. Two containers were placed on the ground, with one containing a food reward. The experimenter pointed at the baited container, and then the animal made its choice.

“Overall, dogs proved to be more skilled. They found the reward significantly more frequently than cats,” Csepregi observed. “In addition, cats gradually became less willing to choose, while dogs were eager to work during the whole duration of the test.”

Acknowledging that cats might have been at a disadvantage in an unfamiliar environment, a subgroup of cats was later tested in their homes. This adjustment did not significantly alter the outcome. Although cats were more willing to participate at home, their success rate remained lower than that of dogs.

What the research team learned

Márta Gácsi, the lead researcher, offered insights into the possible reasons for these differences. “Cats may have been less attentive, less motivated by food rewards, or frustrated by the unfamiliar environment or unusual handling during the test,” she suggested.

Gácsi also highlighted the inherent differences between the two species. “Unlike the cat, the dog is a social species and was selected for interaction and cooperation with humans during domestication. Differences in how we keep them may also have contributed to the test results.”

Gácsi concluded with a significant observation. She explained, “All things considered, it’s no surprise that it’s less relevant for cats to rely on human communication cues.”

In summary, this study sheds light on the differing natures of dogs and cats, suggesting that intelligence in pets cannot be universally measured. This trait is heavily influenced by their evolutionary and domestication histories.

While the debate on which pet is smarter, dogs or cats, may continue, this research underscores the importance of understanding and appreciating the unique qualities of each species.

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