As I witness one of my cats staring out the window, I pause to wonder if she is thinking great thoughts. Perhaps she’s pondering the meaning of feline existence. (The existential cat!) Maybe she’s thinking about dinner. Or maybe she’s just staring vacantly off into space and there’s a big empty hole where her brain should be. With cats, it’s sort of hard to tell.
My cats may not be great thinkers, but I’ve seen videos of cats that can do all kind of cool things that definitely require quite a bit of intelligence. Many cats can open doors, drawers, and even some windows. By watching their humans open doors, some cats have figured out that a doorknob needs to be turned clockwise, so they leap up and grab and twist it with their paws. It appears that at least some cats have enough intelligence to observe and imitate actions to get what they want. They also can learn from trial and error.
Although our room doors remain closed, one of our cats has been intrepid enough to figure out how to open some of our kitchen cabinet doors. I can definitely vouch for the trial and error aspect of feline learning behavior. Cats are patient and seem to live by the motto, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Listening to the thump of the kitchen cabinet door all night motivates you to go to the hardware store in the morning and buy baby-proof cabinet locks.
Behaviorists seem to concur that cats do learn and that many aspects of their brains are structurally similar to the human brain. Like humans, cats have short and long term memory, so they not only remember when it’s time for dinner, they also can recognize people they met years before. Although obviously cats don’t read and write, they do learn by example. For example, kittens learn hunting skills by watching their mothers and then practicing the maneuvers themselves. If you’ve ever seen kittens practicing pouncing on prey, you can tell it requires quite a few tries before they start to get it right.
As anyone who has tried will tell you, training a cat is not like training a dog. Unlike many dogs who live to please their people, cats are monumentally uninterested in what you think. When it comes to training, the bottom line is that something other than you needs to motivate the cat to do what you want. Otherwise, the cat will just sit and glare at you like you’re an idiot. However, some food-motivated cats can be trained using treats.
Clicker training, which involves using food and a click noise as a reward, is often used to train cats to do tricks. So all those cats you see in the movies are probably not particularly different than your cat, except they really like food and have met an incredibly patient trainer.
In the end, cats have many types of problem-solving skills that help them be a cat. If a cat decides that opening a closet door is going to help him get his dinner, he might learn door-opening skills like the cats you see on TV. On the other hand, if he figures it’s a lot easier to just wake you up instead, he’ll do that. Your cat may be a lot smarter than you give him credit for.