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most cat owners will be quick to say such a thing, even though it's an arbitrary sentiment at best. when we relate intelligence to survival, cats are very smart indeed. they are highly skilled at identifying their prey and living in all sorts of hellish environments. but how about those trivial little tests we like to give creatures in the lab as a measure of brain power? here's what they can and can't do:

  • cats are surprisingly good at oddity sets and learning sets (i say 'surprisingly' because they suppose the only other group of animals that can perform such tasks are primates). an oddity set is that classic game we all like to play even as adults: "which of these things is not like the other?" cats can indeed pick out, say, a triangle from a set of otherwise circular objects.
  • cats can also exhibit transfer learning. they can use the information or principle from one problem to solve another. for example, if a cat can learn to pick a triangle out of a bunch of circles, it can then learn to pick a bright object out of a bunch of dull ones, and so on.
  • one reason a lot of people may think cats aren't as intelligent as, say, dogs is because they have extremely short memories. if your cat does something wrong and you wish to set an example through punishment, you have about six seconds. otherwise the cat will just be bewildered and resentful.
  • both cats and dogs engage mostly in 'trial and error' learning. they also seem to learn faster when given a model (for example, if you want to teach a dog how to herd sheep, let it observe (and interact with) a dog that can). that said, cats and dogs are extremely bad with 'insightful behavior.' that is, if you hang a fish high from the ceiling and leave just a crate in the far corner of the room, the cat is not going to push the crate over, climb up on it, and grab for the fish. it just can't put those actions together to form a logical strategy.
  • cats work better with 'avoidance' learning (e.g. a squirt with a handy-dandy water pistol), and largely shun any 'motivational' learning (for example, a "good boy" or pat on the head). this is another reason that the intelligence of cats is doubted; they don't care much for praise and certainly won't work for it.

like any other animal, cats have their strong points and their weak points. but i suppose if you have a cat that can flush the toilet or program the vcr, it's something to be impressed with.

all facts gotten from my cat and dog management class. i love dr. brown!