On the weekend, when he didn’t know I was looking, my dog stood up on his hind legs, pulled down the handle to my bedroom door, pushed against it, quietly made his way to my bed, and got himself comfortable with his head on my pillow.
The look on his face when I followed him in was one of utter surprise.
‘Mumma…’ he said with his eyes but also his ears. ‘It’s not what it looks like.’
But it was.
My dog, it would appear, is fully capable of a) making a decision, b) executing said decision, and c) trying to look innocent when caught having made that decision.
I thought he was meant to be a dog.
In contrast, my cat (who has been exclusively referred to as 'kitten' her entire life), has found herself in such situations as:
- Becoming caught in the Christmas tree.
- Getting lost in a doona cover.
- Moving into our next door neighbour's house part-time because she either forgot where she lived or valued food over loyalty.
In short, she is... how shall I put this delicately?
Now, a study from Vanderbilt University in the US has provided some insight into why my dog is a manipulative genius while my cat regularly responds when we say 'meow' as though we're actually speaking cat.
When a group of researchers counted the number of neurons on the cerebral cortex of cats and dogs, the results were clear: dogs had far more.
"In this study, we were interested in comparing different species of carnivorans to see how the numbers of neurons in their brains relate to the size of their brains, including a few favourite species including cats and dogs, lions and brown bears," said Associate Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences Suzana Herculano-Houzel.
The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy, found dogs have around 530 million cortical neurons while cats have about 250 million - or, in other words, LESS THAN HALF. For reference, the human cortex contains about 16 billion neurons.
"I believe the absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental state and their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on past experience," Herculano-Houzel said.
"Our findings mean to me that dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can."
In the scientific community, there is a long-standing debate around how to best define the comparative intelligence of species. Initially, it was thought the size of the brain alone was the strongest indicator of cognitive ability (which was convenient, because men tend to have larger brains than women), but in line with this logic, elephants and whales would be smarter than humans.
Then, it was believed that the relative size of an animal's brain compared to its body was an accurate measure of intelligence. By this theory, however, we'd have to accept that some small birds are smarter than humans, and that dolphins are the smartest species.
Counting the cells, as Herculano-Houzel has, is thought to be a stronger measure of the brain's processing capacity.
Meanwhile, another study published in Animal Cognition has translated 19 dog 'gestures' in terms of what they're trying to say to their humans.
Behaviours like rolling over in front of you, licking you, gently biting you, lifting a paw and placing it on you, and rubbing its head against you are all an attempt to say: scratch me, pls, while holding one paw in the air while sitting and using its mouth to throw a toy are clear signs that your dog is goddamn hungry.
It seems we should abide by these requests, since dogs are more likely to take over the world than cats.
'...That's not what the research said at all,' I hear you say.
But shhh... the dogs are listening.