Dogs are 'brainier' than cats, says neuron-counting study

Pet lovers can now argue about a new study on brain differences between cats and dogs and what that means for their favorite animals.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

There's a new volley in the debate over superiority between dogs and cats, and dog lovers are going to be thrilled. 

An international team of scientists studied a variety of furry critters and discovered dogs have more neurons in an important part of the brain than cats. Since the scientists believe the number of these neurons helps to determine cognitive capabilities, that means Fido might be brighter than Fluffy. 

Vanderbuilt neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, who developed a method for accurately counting the number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of brains, refers to these as "the 'little gray cells' associated with thinking, planning and complex behavior." 

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Don't look so smug, cat. You have fewer cortical neurons than a dog.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

An international team of researchers took her work and ran with it to compare the brain size and number of neurons in a wide range of animals, including household favorites like cats and dogs, as well as bears, hyenas, lions and raccoons.

The study found cats have around 250 million cortical neurons, while dogs have about 530 million. To put that in perspective, humans have around 16 billion. 

The size of the animal and its brain doesn't always correlate to more neurons. The study found raccoons, which have brains about the size of cats, have as many neurons as some primates. Brown bears have larger brains, but only about as many neurons as cats. 

Herculano-Houzel is an admitted dog person. "I would bet money on a large dog over a cat anytime," she says in a video discussing the study results. "They have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can."

The researchers published their findings this week in the journal Frontiers in Neuroanatomy under the title "Dogs have the most neurons, though not the largest brain: Trade-off between body mass and number of neurons in the cerebral cortex of large carnivoran species."

This isn't the first study that considers cat and dog intelligence. An interesting 2010 Oxford University study suggests highly social animals need more brain power than ones that live more solitary lives.

Cat and dog lovers can peacefully coexist while still believing their favorite animal is superior. Maybe it's just that cats are smart about cat things and dogs are smart about dog things. Let's not let neurons divide us.   

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