How Cats Solve Problems

They learn by observation, imitation, trial and error, just as humans do.

Cats’ cerebral cortexes are more complex than those of dogs. By: traveloriented

Thor rushed in once I opened up the kitten room to the older felines-in-residence. Rescued from a feral cat colony when he was a kitten, the big, burly, gray guy likes hanging out with the fosters and other visitors. He also can’t stand being shut out of a room.

After a while, however, he got a little bored and moseyed over to the interactive play circuits. There were 2 of them:

  1. A pretty basic one that the kittens had already mastered
  2. And a trickier one that they didn’t like so much

Thor ignored the first toy and went over to the second. Its track undulates, so a cat really must make an effort to get the ball moving. He poked at the ball. “That’s the harder one,” I said. Thor looked up at me, then went back to prodding the yellow ball.


Now when he comes into the room, he greets the kittens, checks out their food dishes and heads over to the harder play circuit. He not only pushes the ball up and down that track, but he also gets up and repositions himself to smack it more forcefully.

Thor, it turns out, is a problem solver.

Like Human, Like Cat?

A cat’s brain works a lot like ours, funny enough.

“Cats learn by observation, imitation, trial and error, just as humans do,” points out Cats International. In fact, a cat can learn things — opening cupboards, flicking light switches or even using the toilet — “solely by observing [someone] performing these activities.”

This might explain why our Zorro always tried to open doors by wrapping one of his front paws around the knob.

Some cats are such strategists — you can practically see those wheels spinning in their heads. Once, Moonlight talked Thor into trying to help her steal a large piece of chicken. The heist failed, but you had to admire the thought behind it. She didn’t try to get Freya, Thor’s littler sister, in on the deal — she went straight for the muscled kitten.

Cats can also improvise. Author Gladys Taber once watched her Manx, Tigger, pull up a weed and stick it along the edge of a hole. When the weed moved, he shot out and collared the unsuspecting mole.


Cats do not have big brains, but their cerebral cortex “is greater and more complex compared to that of dogs,” explains Dr. Berit Brogaard, D.M. Sci., Ph.D. It is “the seat of rational decision-making…and complex problem-solving,” she explains.

As such, it’s “involved in the planning of action, the interpretation of language (or other forms of communication), and it is responsible for the storage of short-term and long-term memory.”

Cats can learn to open cabinets and turn on light switches just by watching their humans. By: Helena Jacoba

Cats vs. Dogs

Cats don’t necessarily test well. Dogs do.

Take mazes, for instance. The dogs used in these tests, as Messy Beast blogger Sarah Hartwell points out, were eager to please and figured out right away that they got rewarded for getting out of the maze quickly.

The cats, on the other hand, “sat down and washed. They investigated blind alleys. They did not complete the maze in the allocated time and were therefore judged as ‘failing the test’ or ‘lackadaisical.’”

In reality, they were simply being their opportunistic selves, “and investigating every blind alley made sense to the cat. After all, who knows where prey might be hiding in the real world. Sitting down and washing is a displacement activity when a cat is uncertain.”

They also lacked a dog’s pack mentality, which made them less inclined to cooperate with people.

But most tests don’t give us a clear indication of feline intelligence. They don’t take into account their curiosity, their incredible memory and their powers of observation.

Or their ability to turn situations to their own advantage. In an experiment conducted by Dr. Jules Masserman in 1950, 2 cats managed to disable the feeding mechanism in their cage. They did this by jamming an electric lever into the corner of the cage. As a result, they no longer pushed the mechanism that released the food; they just kicked back and relaxed. Honestly, 2 human engineers couldn’t have figured it out better.

This cat doesn’t have to make much of an effort to show his intelligence:

Plotting Cats

I don’t think our Thor has any plans quite that big, but the thought of a continuous feed would probably make his gray ears perk up.

Early this morning, I found him and Magwitch, his snowshoe Siamese buddy, checking out that trickier play circuit. They looked very serious. Clearly, an intense strategy session was going on.