Friday, May 6, 2011

Doors Reveal the Cat's Limit of Intelligence

Some cats might appear pretty smart, but I’d bet there’s only a few that truly fit into that category. For example, my cats don’t understand that when I’m laying motionless in silence, in total darkness at night like I do every night, that it’s not an appropriate time to walk on me repeatedly. I understand they’re nocturnal, but getting thrown off the bed 20 times a night doesn’t seem to condition them to not walk on me.

As a result, we’ve taken to locking the cats in another bedroom at night. One of my cats actually is pretty smart (for a cat) and knows that the doorknob is the secret to opening the door. He sits on the bathroom counter and bats at it all night long.

Cats understand the natural world; they can hunt, escape predators, they know to lay in a sunbeam and they generally understand when something’s poison. But unlike dogs, they’re difficult to train: They don’t sit, stay, or even understand the concept of pointing. Don’t feel bad for cats, they’re still way more intelligent than just about everything on Earth.

The door, therefore, is just on the threshold of their ability to understand abstract concepts. They associate it with passing from one area to another because of a history of using them. As a result, when your cat wants to go outside or leave a room, it goes to the door and stares at it and meows instead of staring at the wall. They know what it’s for, they just don’t know how to move it.

Anyone with an outdoor cat who owns a sliding glass door knows exactly what I’m talking about. When the cat wants in or out, they go to the door and run on it. They just scratch and scratch and scratch and scratch, then take a pause to look confused, then try the same thing again. They just don’t quite get it.

But wait! Somewhere out there, there must be a super-intelligent cat that can open doors! We’ll just take a field trip to YouTube, the premier location for cutesy cat videos. They’ve got the end-all archive on cat behavior videos, so surely we’ll find one here.

Oh... well, it looks like cats can only open lever-style door handles, as it just requires them putting their body weight on it for a moment. It was bound to happen!

These gifted cats just barely understand this concept over their slightly stupider brethren, yet they still don’t know that “pointing” doesn’t mean “look at my finger.” At least you can use pointing as a way to make multiple cats nod their heads in synchronicity.

So it looks like one of my cats might have slightly above-average intelligence. Just remind me not to put lever handles in my house.


  1. My cats cat open doors, we have lever-type door knobs. Its really annoying when you forget to lock the door and you're sitting on the toilet doing your businness and the cat opens to door wide open for everybody to see and hear what you are doing.
    Also one of my cats has learned to knock on doors to be let in. When he's on the balcony he will stand up on his hind legs and slam his paws onto to the door loudly. Smart kitty :)

  2. Replies
    1. Cats' intelligence has evolved differently from that of dogs. Dogs have been bred and have evolved over millenia to be dependant on their human companions. That's why dogs are much easier to be trained. Through generations of dog breeding the dogs which were most malleable to training were bred. Cats are much more independent. Cats have retained the ability to survive without the aid of human companions. I have a dog and a cat. I'm sure out in the wild or in an urban environment my dog would be utterly hapless while my cat would have a much better chance to survive

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  4. My cat opens all the doors in our house with locks. Unless we change the knobs we can't control him going in closets, the pantry, washroom. To keep him from knocking the seven foot Christmas tree over when we leave we would put him in the washroom where his food & litter is. Not anymore. No lock, no way to keep him in. Found a small potato to put behind doornob & that seems to work. And you say cats don't sit? He sits, lays down for treats AND he plays fetch with one of his toys. Had candelabras sitting in top of window seal & he jumped on bottom seal & knocked candelabra off top window seal & broke it. Constantly into some kind of mischief. Smart cat. Imagine being asleep and being awoke by cat jumping from headboard onto your head!