By contributor

Explainer: How science measures up cats and dogs

  • That cats and dogs have the wherewithal to set aside their differences and join forces to thwart a rogue feline's attempt at world domination is, obviously, the stuff of a plotline for a Hollywood movie with blockbuster dreams. But Kitty and Fido do have an impressive real-world skill set, don't they?

    As "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore" hits the big screen, click ahead to find out what science has to say about the intelligence and abilities of our favorite household pets.

  • Dogs as smart as toddlers

    Image: Portugese Water Dog
    Christopher Furlong  /  Getty Images file

    Parents of 2-year olds might want to keep their enthusiasm over their toddlers' intellectual prowess in check. Turns out, they're likely no smarter than the average dog, according to a series of intelligence tests run by canine researcher Stanley Coren at the University of British Columbia.

    A language development test, for example, reveals that the average dog can learn about 165 words, similar to the capacity of a 2-year old child.

    In a math test where researchers lowered treats one at a time behind a screen, dogs were bewildered when the screen was lifted and the number of treats they correctly counted weren't there because the researcher deliberately swiped one or added an extra. This suggests the dogs grasp basic arithmetic.

  • Dogs can sniff out cancers

    Image: Dog cartoon
    F.Birchman /

    Cancers, apparently, have a smell that dogs can be trained to detect, according to a growing body of research that could put dogs in doctors' chairs to help their human counterparts detect and verify diagnoses of disease.

    Small trials have shown canines capable of detecting melanoma on a person's skin and lung and breast cancers by chemical cues in a person's breath. The trick, according to Auburn University veterinarian Larry Myers, is the ability of dogs to smell multiple layers of chemicals.

  • Cats hunt less efficiently than dogs

    Image: Cat and dog
    Win McNamee / Getty Images

    Cats are widely known as stealthy hunters, able to sneak up within pouncing distance of their prey before launching a lethal attack. This capability, however, comes at a cost to energy efficiency, according to Daniel Schmitt, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University.

    The biomechanics of the dog gait, for example, enables them to reduce muscular effort required to move forward by 70 percent. The cat gait efficiency gains max out at 37 percent and drops precipitously in a stalking posture.

    "Most scientists think that energetic efficiency is the currency of natural selection. Here we've shown that some animals make compromises when they have to choose between competing demands," Schmitt said in a news release about the findings.

  • Cats can't talk, but push our buttons

    Domesticated cats probably don't have a language of their own, but their meows certainly do get people's attention, according to scholar and historical novelist Nicholas Nicastro, who did his dissertation research for a Ph.D. in psychology at Cornell University on cat vocalizations.

    "Cats have become very skilled at managing humans to get what they want — basically food, shelter and a little human affection," he said in a 2002 news release about his research.

    He found that urgent cat calls — the "feed me now" type calls — are longer and more energetic than the shorter, more pleasant calls a cat may make when trying to get picked out from a litter at an animal shelter, for example.

  • Cat owners more educated than dog owners

    Image: Vicki Myron and her cat Page
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP

    If the debate over cat vs. dog intelligence seems better articulated by cat owners, there's a reason: Cat owners are more likely to have university degrees than dog owners, according to researchers at the University of Bristol.

    Jane Murray, who led the study, said the association is likely due to the fact that degree holders tend to work long hours, which limits the time they have available for pet care. Cats are less needy than dogs, she noted, content to snooze away the day on a sunny windowsill while their owners toil behind office desks.

    Vicki Myron, who wrote "Dewey, The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World," holds her cat Page in this image.

  • Cat brain: The future of computing?

    Image: Cat

    Computer engineer Wei Lu at the University of Michigan is hard at work developing the computer of the future. He hopes to make it as smart as a cat.

    "The cat brain sets a realistic goal because it is much simpler than a human brain but still extremely difficult to replicate in complexity and efficiency," he has said.

    His work is based on devices he calls “memristors” that remember the past voltages it was they were exposed to and functions like a biological synapse, which connect brain cells or neurons together.

  • Cat earns high school diploma

    Image: Jay Jay shows off his computer skills at preview for the 2008 Iams cat show.
    Michael Nagle  /  Getty Images

    Jay Jay, the Iams-trained show cat illustrating his computer skills in this image, might want take a lesson from Oreo C. Collins, a cat from Macon, Ga., who successfully earned a "high school diploma" from Jefferson High School Online.

    Oreo's owner, Kelvin Collins, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central Georgia, admits he might have helped the cat take the test and write the life-experience essay required for graduation, but said Oreo was on his lap the whole time.

    "Oreo's a really smart cat," Collins said in a telephone interview with reporter Helen A.S. Popkin last summer. His intellectual achievement, however, is meant to highlight fraud in online degree programs. A real General Educational Development (GED) diploma requires in-person test taking.

  • Cats and dogs can get along

    Image: Ginny, a schnauzer-Siberian husky mix, now passed away, with Blondie, the cat he lived with in Long Beach, N.Y. in 1996.
    Joan Baron  /  AP file

    Cats and dogs really can get along to the point that they'll play hard together, drink water from the same bowl, and cuddle on the couch, according to research led by Joseph Terkel at Tel Aviv University. The recipe for success, he found, is to adopt the cat first and introduce a dog while both pets are still young.

    In homes where the cat and dog are mates, the research suggests they've managed to correctly read each other's body cues. A cat's thrashing tail, for example, signifies anger. Happy dogs wag their tails.

    "We found that cats and dogs are learning how to talk each other's language," Terkel said. "It was a surprise that cats can learn how to talk 'Dog' and vice versa."


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