Which of America’s favorite pets is top dog (or the cat’s meow) when it comes to smarts and skills? We turned to science to put the age-old rivalry to the test. May the best pet win!
Which Have More Stamina?
The sled dogs that compete in Alaska’s annual Iditarod run about 1,100 miles in less than two weeks, often in temperatures as low as -40 degrees F. “They use fat as their primary energy source—far better than any other athletic species that’s been studied,” says exercise physiologist Michael Davis, who notes that a 55-pound husky can burn as many as 12,000 calories a day. Davis’s research has also shown that sled dogs have an enormous capacity to process oxygen. Cats are more like sprinters: They’re capable of short bursts of energy but lack the aerobic endurance of ultra-runners like huskies.
Which Are More Agile?
“Cats are very nimble, with great balance,” says New York City veterinarian Michael Garvey. “When a cat falls off a bookshelf, it usually lands on its feet.” And when cats take a longer plunge, their body control is even more on display. “Cats that fall large distances typically don’t land on their feet, but given enough time, they are able to right themselves. They contort their bodies so they are falling flat, which allows them to land on their chest and belly, reducing their injuries,” says Garvey. He should know: He’s the former director of an animal hospital in Manhattan that treated up to 250 falling felines each summer. He and his colleagues cataloged the injuries and discovered a surprising trend: Cats that fell from higher than 10 stories up actually fared better than those that fell from between five and nine stories. Garvey believes the added height gives cats the time to position themselves for a perfectly splayed-out landing. “I’ve seen cats that have fallen more than 32 stories and didn’t have serious fractures,” says Garvey, who conducted a follow-up study on dogs. “Sadly, most dogs that fall even four stories don’t survive, because they lack the ability to compose their bodies midair.”
Which Are Better Hunters?
Many kinds of dogs have been meticulously bred to assist humans in hunting, but cats are arguably more effective as independent assassins. “Some dogs will chase squirrels all day long, but if they do get one cornered, they often won’t know what to do with it,” says animal behaviorist Monique Udell, who has worked with both cats and dogs. “Cats will almost always go in for the kill.” Cats’ superior close-range and nighttime vision contributes to their hunting prowess, as does their ability to focus intensely on the task at hand. In fact, their skill as hunters has been documented: A 2010 University of Nebraska report found that feral and stray cats kill as many as 480 million birds in the U.S. each year—that’s approximately eight Tweeties for each Sylvester.
Which Are Hardest Working?
Both cats and dogs were originally brought into the human fold for practical reasons (cats to kill vermin, dogs to hunt and to herd). But these days, dogs have by far the more diverse résumé. Their job skills are almost as wide-ranging as humans’: Dogs guide the blind, chase down criminals, and sniff out illegal drugs. They’re called in to detect termites, to identify gas leaks, and even to help schoolchildren with ADHD concentrate. (They’re still pretty good at herding cows and sheep, too!) Meanwhile, though cats are sometimes recruited to control rodents, in general they lack dogs’ versatility—and drive. According to a recent study, the average house cat spends 80 percent of the day in repose.
Which Live the Longest?
Cats have an average life span of 13 or 14 years, as opposed to just shy of 11 years for their canine rivals. “For dogs, there’s a huge difference depending on the size of the animal—the really large dogs tend to have considerably shorter lives,” explains Stanley Coren, an animal behaviorist. “A Newfoundland is quite old by the time he’s 8 or 9. A miniature poodle might live for 14 or 15 years.” For cats, the main age variable is environment—outdoor cats don’t live nearly as long as indoor cats, which have been known to survive for more than two decades.
Which Are the Fastest?
Greyhounds are capable of running 40 miles per hour—making them by far the speediest pet of either species. (The Greyhound Project, Adopt-a-Greyhound.org, works to ensure that retired racers find good homes.) “In general, the fastest animals tend to have fairly small guts, slender heads, and light limbs,” says Jim Usherwood, a British researcher who studies animal locomotion. And while some cats in the wild—like cheetahs, which can reach a top speed of 65 miles per hour—meet these physical criteria, house cats do not. Among Usherwood’s most interesting findings is that, unlike human runners, greyhounds don’t slow down at all as they round a bend. The motion of their legs is similar to that of a bicycle wheel, which keeps a constant speed through a turn. Studies haven’t proved whether domestic cats employ a similar running style, in part because they generally can’t be cajoled into galloping around a track. But when they are motivated to take off, cats run a (relatively) close second—they’ve been clocked at up to 30 miles per hour.
Which Are the Most Independent?
Most domestic dogs need lots of human attention, relying on their two-legged masters to regulate their meals, supervise their exercise, keep them clean, and generally shower them with love and affection. Cats, on the other hand, are happy to be left on their own. “Dogs were domesticated to interact with people—to live with people, to hunt with people, to protect people, to herd with people,” says Udell. “Cats were domesticated to chase around rats—no supervision required.” As a result, “many of a house cat’s ancestral behavioral patterns related to hunting, cleaning, and even burying their waste are still intact,” she says. However, for many breeds of pet dogs, similar survival mechanisms—like the instinct to chase and kill other animals—have been bred out.
Which Have the Better Sense of Smell?
The human nose has about 5 million olfactory receptors, microscopic proteins that allow us to detect odors. With 45 million to 80 million receptors, cats have a far better sense of smell—but they can’t measure up to the average dog, whose snout holds between 149 million and 300 million receptors. The canine sense of smell may be a thousand times better than ours, and so discerning that dogs can not only track a missing person but distinguish whether he recently had a meal or smoked a cigarette. Historically, dogs relied on their superior snouts to find prey and avoid predators. These days, dogs are trained to sniff out everything from bedbug infestations to the chemical changes that indicate early-stage cancer.
Which Are Smarter?
There are many ways of sizing up what’s going on inside our pets’ furry heads; scientists have tried to assess such areas as communication, trainability, and complexity of thought. Sorry, cat lovers, but in just about every measure, dogs come out on top. “The average dog can learn 165 words; that’s equivalent to the vocabulary of a 2-year-old child,” says Coren, whose surveys have found that border collies, poodles, German shepherds, and golden retrievers are the brainiest breeds. “Cats can learn something in the vicinity of 35 words.” (The smartest feline may be the Maine coon.) Dogs are also far easier to train and have a greater capacity for complex thought. A recent study found that pet dogs observe and learn from human behavior to such an extent that they won’t bother to beg for food while their owner is reading a book. Earlier work has shown that dogs understand the concept of “object permanence” (when a ball rolls underneath a sofa, for instance, dogs know that it still exists—it’s just hidden from view). Cats also have this ability but aren’t able to predict where the rolling ball will reappear, for example, as well as dogs can. And while Coren concedes that more research needs to be done on cats, he notes that cats evolved as loners, a factor that doesn’t favor intelligence. “Generally speaking, animals [like dogs] that have a complex social life and work in groups tend to be brighter.”
Looks like dogs are ahead by a nose, but as our experts have shown, each animal has its own special talents.