Speaking of dogs...Social mammals have bigger brains than solitary mammals


You know that age-old argument dog people and cat people can't ever seem to agree on? The one about whether dogs or cats are smarter? Well, we may finally have an answer! (Spoiler alert: I'm pretty stoked, as a dog person.) According to a new study by Oxford University, researchers have discovered extreme differences in how the brains of different mammals have evolved over time. The study notes there is a link between the level of social interaction of mammals and the size of their brain relative to their body size.

Lead author Dr. Susanne Shultz said, "Cooperation and coordination for group living can be challenging." Isn't that the truth? Over time, mammal brains have evolved and increased in size to keep up with the demands of being social. It's a common belief that brain size has increased in all mammals, but researchers are suggesting that highly social species, such as dogs, have developed larger brains faster than solitary species, such as cats. "It is interesting to see that even animals that have contact with humans, like cats, have much smaller brains than dogs and horses because of their lack of sociability," said co-author Professor Robin Dunbar.

Researchers took available data about brain size and body size of living mammals and compared it with similar data from fossilized remains of mammals of the same lineage. They examined changes in proportions within lineages, and then compared across lineages to identify if there were significant changes in some mammals over others. Just keep in mind this research is targeting changes in brain size relative to body size as evidence.

In case you're not convinced yet, check out this article published by the LA Times in 2009. The conclusion that dogs are smarter is also backed, but with different methods. It described a cover story by New Scientist magazine discussing the divide between cats and dogs. Not surprisingly, it's a pretty small divide. Eleven categories were created to "pit the animals against each other." After the first 10 categories were completed, including problem solving (dogs win!) and vocalization (cats win), cats and dogs were tied. The final category was utility - how useful are they? Well, while cats are cute and (sometimes) cuddly, the only utility they were found to provide was companionship and the ability to protect a home from rats and other small, icky creatures. Dogs, however, lead the blind, sniff out drugs and landmines, search for crash victims, and much more. Plus, dog is man's best friend. There's really no better feeling than walking outside for 10 seconds to get the morning paper and having your dog be so excited (it's like you've been gone for years!) when you walk back inside.

I do not think these findings apply to all dogs though as I seem to own one of the lesser intelligent of the animals.

Check out this video by New Scientist: Dogs versus Cats


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being the smartest domestic animal is like being the tallest midget

By herp n. derpington (not verified) on 15 Dec 2010 #permalink

Maybe I'm missing the point, but relative brain size is a measure of what exactly? I hope the answer is not intelligence. Otherwise mankind didn't learn much in the last two centuries.

Obviously, those researchers didn't hear MY dogs' vocalizations, or dogs might have taken that category, too. Setters "roo" a whole lot; they are often very conversational. Two of mine clearly think they're talking with us, responding with pitched and emphasized rooing to conversation directed to them.

Have you ever opened a door to let a cat in out of a freezing rain? They sit there and stare. Breezes flow through their empty heads and, somewhere warmer, crickets chirp.

"There's really no better feeling than walking outside for 10 seconds to get the morning paper and having your dog be so excited (it's like you've been gone for years!) when you walk back inside." That, my dear dog lover, is the very thing I detest about dogs.

Well, what about social family cats like lions and the like. Looks to me like they need to coordinate quite a bit like raising cubs, chasing grocery ...

Surely the researchers didn't investigate present day house cat breeds? Did they?

By chartinael (not verified) on 16 Dec 2010 #permalink

Humans wouldn't have survived without the symbiosis between us and canines. If humans never domesticated felines, I think we still would be around today. Just sayin'

Does this mean Facebook user's brains are enlarging as we socialize?

My cat saved my life by awakening me by jumping on me urgently. When I got up to put her out of my room, she ran around my legs meowing like crazy and I noticed the fire in my kitchen.

She also alerted me to my sleep apnea, and ran to the door each time a person outside approached it.

DUH!!! Cats only catch rats?

Maybe researchers need to interview cat owners and judge mammal intelligence on observation of behaviors instead of brain size.

My three cats are social, because that's how I raised them. If I had raised them to be useful, they would be useful, but not in the same ways as dogs are. But there are things cats can do that few dogs can, by reason of their greater flexibility, dexterity, and ability to climb, and their (usually) lighter weight. If I thought of it when they were young enough, I would train them to retrieve objects from high shelves for me. I have no scratches on my furniture--none at all!--and nobody believes me until they actually come to my house. The cats and I both understand when they are asking specifically for food, treats, affection, or something else (just now I heard one of them in the kitchen, meowing about a can of wet food he would like to eat now, but that I'm not going to give him until tomorrow morning). They also do the thing where they get my attention and ask me to follow them to a place or thing of interest.

It's not that cats are less intelligent than dogs, exactly. It's that dogs have a form of intelligence that is closer to our form of intelligence. We just have to work harder to understand cats, because cats are more different from us.

By speedwell (not verified) on 16 Dec 2010 #permalink

@tschill: Knowledge and intelligence are not the same thing.

While we may have learnt many things, it's only really better nutrition that I would expect to have a direct impact on intelligence.

Nuclear theory hasn't increased (individual) human intelligence, but it's a very important thing to have learnt.

By Kingreaper (not verified) on 17 Dec 2010 #permalink

what about social family cats like lions and the like

lions is the complete list.

I do hope more pet lovers will chime in with anthropomorphic anecdotes about their furry companions!

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 18 Dec 2010 #permalink

While we may have learnt many things, it's only really better nutrition that I would expect to have a direct impact on intelligence.