Real Smarty Cat

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Real Smarty Cat: An Excerpt from Arden Moore’s ‘The Cat Behavior Answer Book’

Q. Our household contains a Border collie, a poodle, and an Abyssinian. Those two dog breeds are known for their intelligence, but my Aby cat, aptly named Mensa, is no slouch when it comes to brainpower either. She comes on cue, walks on a leash, and goes to the kitchen and sits politely when asked if she wants a treat. How smart are cats and how do they learn?

A. If there were a pet version of the popular game show Jeopardy!, your trio would trounce the competition, paws down. You pack a lot of brainpower in that furry bunch, but as you may realize, cats learn differently than dogs and people.

Cats possess both short-term and long-term memories. That explains why they can head for the litter box or food bowl kept in the same locale (long-term) or adjust if these feline necessities have been moved to a different room (short-term). Cats learn by observing, imitating, and trial and error.

Mensa seems to act like a dog when she performs those tricks on cue, but in reality, cats are big believers in the what’s-in-it-for-me philosophy. Whereas dogs tend to perform to please us and to reap the treats, cats decide what they’ll do and when they’ll do it. If they can reasonably determine that you will come through with an acceptable reward, then they may participate in coming when called, sitting for a treat, or doing some other trick.

Cats also learn by paying close attention to what’s going on in the house. For example, some smart cats watch their owners open doors and then try to duplicate that feat. A friend of mine has a Siamese who learned how to paw the doorknob that opens into the garage. To keep her cat from fleeing when the garage door opens (fortunately, Sheba has not discovered the location of the garage door opener mounted on the wall), my friend had to add a deadbolt lock to this door.

Evolution plays a role in how each species behaves. For instance, your two dogs may dig a shallow hole in your backyard on a hot, humid day as a way to cool their bellies. This instinctive behavior has been passed on from one canine generation to another. Cats, however, aren’t hardwired to dig to cool down. They are more apt to seek a shaded secluded place where they can keep an eye on predators while cooling their bodies. And, being the fastidious groomers they are, they are not so keen about rolling in the dirt and getting their coats messy.

Finally, cats are masters at manipulating us. Creatures of habit, they tap into their powers of observation and learning by association to use the household routine to their advantage. Callie, my calico, has trained me better than I care to admit. At least once a day, while I am working at the dining room table, she perches on a step midway down the staircase, poses charmingly while looking at me with soft eyes, and emits a soft mew. That’s my cue to get up from the dining room chair, open the pantry door, and dole out a pinch or two of her favorite dried fish treat.

Of course, she didn’t come down the stairs one day thinking “I want a treat and I know how to get one,” but the first time she paused and mewed at me on the stairs, and I jumped up to bring her a treat, she knew she was onto something good. Her stair position is strategic—it is at the closest level and distance to the pantry door.

I know I’m being manipulated but happily comply. Callie is clever enough to recognize my weak spot and works it to her advantage. Who’s the truly intelligent being now?

Source: The Cat Behavior Answer Book by Arden Moore. Excerpted with permission. For a complete list of pet books by Arden Moore, visit


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