How Smart Are Cats?

Nevertheless, as early as the 1920's, researchers found that cats can learn complex tasks, especially if the reward is food. And in highly structured tests of learning ability, cats often outperformed dogs in the ability to master conceptual problems. In the 1950's, animal behaviorist J. M. Warren at Pennsylvania State University at University Park described the cat's ability to master "oddity learning" in which the animal is shown three objects and is rewarded for selecting the one that is most unlike the other two. In the test, cats learned to paw a square block rather than two round blocks presented at the same time, because food was hidden beneath the square block. In similar tests, the cat chose the different object when presented with one round block and two squares.

Such tests require the ability to understand concepts, in this case, that of similarity and dissimilarity. Researchers have found that some cats do as well with this type of conceptual learning as monkeys. And, aside from monkeys and other primates, cats are among the most adept at learning by observing the successes and failures of other animals attempting to complete tasks to obtain a reward.