Cats are often a lot cleverer than people suspect. What seems like random behaviour can often be intelligent and directed.
They learn (some faster than others, admittedly) how to use a litter-box, where they can get food and who is most likely to give them treats. I think all cats are fairly intelligent (mine certainly have been) but my British Shorthairs have been something quite special.
Are British Shorthair cats intelligent? Yes, they are. They’re readily trainable and demonstrate a high degree of insight. While they’re independent and their intelligence doesn’t manifest as mischievousness, British Shorthairs will be happier if their minds are occupied with puzzles and games.
Just how smart are British Shorthairs? Are there any other clever cat breeds? Do intelligent cats need any special care? As a loving pet owner (or future pet owner) you want the best for your cat. That includes helping them stay entertained and mentally active. To find out how you can exercise your cats’ minds as well as their bodies, and to learn more about feline intelligence, read on.
Are British Shorthair cats intelligent?
Along with all their other positive traits, this breed is noted for being smart: quick learners, easy to train and fond of puzzle games and toys that test their intellect. Any domestic feline is, in my experience, quite a clever creature; perhaps because they’ve been carefully bred for their social skills, they do seem to have an extra level of smarts that put them ahead of the average cat. Intelligence will vary from individual to individual.
I’ve met some British Shorthairs who clearly weren’t going to win Mastermind, although they were unfailingly lovely, but in general, they’ve all been very clever cats. Feline intelligence can sometimes be a mixed blessing, as there seems to be a direct correlation between feline smarts and how much havoc they can unleash upon your life.
It’s not that a clever cat is malicious — it’s just that she can do things and get into places that you really don’t want her getting into. This is typically not the case with the laid-back, non-destructive British Shorthair, who seems content to use her superpowers for good. In particular, I’ve found that British Shorthairs take instruction well and seem to want to please their human companions by learning new skills.
They actively wish to co-operate and communicate with you. This might seem like anthropomorphisation and wishful thinking but modern research tends to support the idea.
Felines, in general, get short shrift when it comes to trainability; however, this is based on a constellation of misconceptions and a lack of research. The common feline stereotype is of a cold, aloof animal that lives a solitary life in the wild, lacking social instincts or any real educability. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Feral cats don’t live alone, for preference, they form colonies.
Usually, there are one or two matriarchs who help raise the kittens, with the rest of the colony work together on hunting, scavenging and bringing back food for the other cats. Not only are cats social and quite loyal, but they also need to develop skills and engage in cooperative tasks. These are things that require intelligence. Until fairly recently there wasn’t much research into intelligence in cats but that is starting to change. In this article, we’ll look more closely at feline intelligence and how it manifests.
But cats aren’t clever – not like dogs…”
I adore dogs and refuse to participate in the Cat Person vs. Dog Person wars. Having said that, I’ve met several pooches who were distinctly less clever than some of my cats have been. Dogs are generally eager to learn and willingly trainable, while cats aren’t always interested in learning tricks or stunts.
One of the reasons that cats have this reputation for being less clever than dogs, though, is simply that people don’t really try to train them. You can absolutely teach your cat games and other skills if you’re prepared to invest a little time. It helps if the cat is still young, as older animals tend to be set in their ways and reluctant to expand their skill-set to include fetching sticks or balls.
Clicker and treat training works well with cats. In this method, you give the cat a treat when she performs the desired activity. You use the sound of the clicker to mark the action (otherwise it’s possible for the cat to get confused as to why the reward is being given). In this way, you can train your cat to do a number of things, from cute tricks to skills that can be genuinely useful. Never, under any circumstances, use punishment when training your cat in a new skill.
What kinds of things could my British Shorthair cat learn?
Much depends on the individual cat but there are lots of fun and useful tricks your British Shorthair cat might be able to learn. Some people teach their cats to put a paw up to beg for treats, tap their hand or foot, give them a high-five and other cute little activities.
Some more ambitious cat owners have actually potty-trained their cats using a litter-box that can be set on top of the toilet; personally, I’ve never tried this as it’s a long and tricky procedure but it does work for some cats. Teaching your British Shorthair cat to come when called is very useful. Not only can you invite her over to you for a game or a tummy rub, but you can also use this skill if she gets out and you need her to come back. I generally recommend that British Shorthair cats be kept as indoor kitties because they’re so good at hunting.
If you do let your BSH out (by accident or design) it’s good to have a way to retrieve her. Pick a sound – the clicker, her name plus “Come here”, etc. – and give her a reward when she responds. (It’s important to be consistent here; if you don’t use the same sound every time, you will confuse your pet.) Once she has begun to respond to the sound you’ve chosen, you can try moving away from her and getting her to come over for her treat. Keep extending the distance between you until your British Shorthair will come to you from the other end of the house.
Is my British Shorthair smart enough to walk on a lead?
A related skill to coming when called is harness training. Some people insist that cats can’t be trained to accept being walked on a lead but all that’s really required is patience. Because British Shorthairs often need a little help to get the exercise they require to stay in good shape, it can be useful to take them out for walks so they can stretch their stubby legs and get their circulation moving.
Start by leaving the harness somewhere your cat spends a lot of time; next to your British Shorthair’s food bowl is a good choice, as it will produce positive associations. Next, begin laying the harness loosely over your cat’s body without fastening it and slowly progress to putting it on properly for a moment or two. Eventually, you can work towards to putting the harness on and fastening it for progressively longer periods, then adding the lead. Once your British Shorthair is used to the lead you can take her for walks almost like a dog. (Do use a harness rather than a collar and lead, as this is safer for the cat. Some people use treats to get their cat to take the lead without too much fuss.
I prefer to avoid this because British Shorthair cats can be a bit obsessive about food anyway and I don’t like to encourage. If it comes down to a choice between a little more food and a lot more exercise, though, choose the latter. I’d advise teaching the come-when-called skill first. British Shorthairs can put on a surprising turn of speed when they see something to chase; it’s good to have a way to get them back.
Just how smart are British Shorthairs?
Intelligence is a difficult thing to quantify, especially in animals. Modern researchers estimate that an adult cat may be at least as intelligent as a human two-year-old, which seems about right to me; I’ve had cats who were even smarter. Among cat fanciers, the British Shorthair has a reputation for moderate intelligence — smart, but not an evil genius like the Siamese. I would beg to differ.
They are some of the smartest cats I know; it’s simply that British Shorthair intelligence seems to be more of the deep thinker type than flashy displays of “how good I am at getting into this childproofed treat cupboard”. They have excellent memories — in particular, it’s not unusual for the British Shorthair to learn your schedule down to a T. I can rely on my boys to know what time I’m coming home and be quietly anticipating my return by the door when I get back. If I’m home early, they’re not waiting on the mat — they jump up from where they’re lying in surprise and come over. All the British Shorthairs I’ve met seemed to enjoy a good puzzle.
I would recommend getting one of those feeder toys that make your cat solve a puzzle for a small treat. This can be a good way to keep your cat’s brain active, prevent them from getting too sedentary, and slow down their food consumption (particularly important for older cats). In the next section, we’ll discuss toys and games in a bit more detail.
What toys and games are good for my British Shorthair?
As I mentioned above, I really like puzzle games for cats. My British Shorthairs seem to prefer the ones that dispense a small piece of food or an attractive toy when manipulated correctly. They get bored with the same toys very quickly unless there’s a good reason to keep playing. I like maze-style toys – these get a cat to manoeuvre small pieces of food through a maze in order to get them out.
I prefer the kinds that allow you to set the toy at different difficulty levelsñ if a puzzle is too complicated, cats will often get discouraged and stop playing with them. Another really good option is a treat ball. These have a screw-like path inside that allows the treat to work its way to the exit. The mechanism makes cats chase and roll the ball around in order to workpieces of food out so they can eat them.
Treat balls are especially good for our chunky British Shorthair friends, who benefit from the additional exercise that chasing a ball around requires. In general, I’m a fan of fishing-pole toys but have to admit that they don’t really challenge the cat’s intellect — great for using their prey response to keep them active but not necessarily challenging in terms of smarts. A better game to engage your British Shorthair’s wits, as well as her hunting instincts, is playing fetch.
Mine have generally been quick to take it up with a bit of guidance. They really enjoy it and it’s a great way to keep them active physically as well as mentally. They seem to like a toy that makes a sound, like a ball with a bell inside.
Are there any other intelligent cat breeds?
If you’re looking for a similarly intelligent friend for your British Shorthair cat, there are several other breeds who are noted for their intelligence.
- Abyssinians top the list – they’re famous for their smarts, perhaps more than any other cat. Like British Shorthairs, they enjoy a good game of fetch and take an intense interest their humans’ activities; unlike the British Shorthair, however, they’re not content to supervise. They’ll tend to abstract any smaller items that you happen to be interested in, such as your knitting, correspondence and anything else they can pick up, so they can take it to a quiet location and peruse it at their leisure. Some people call them “Abbie-grabbies” due to their fondness for appropriating small items.
- Siamese cats are more notorious than famous; their intelligence seems to lend itself to mischief. They want to hang out and chat but they’re a lot louder and more insistent than your British Shorthair; the Siamese wants to make sure she has your full attention. They don’t like to be left alone too much because that big intellect needs plenty of stimulation.
- Turkish Vans are known for their smarts and are a lot of fun. In particular, they love water — you can toss a stick into the water and watch your Turkish Van eagerly dive in to retrieve it.
- The Scottish Fold is a popular breed to cross with British Shorthairs. They have a rather more cuddly temperament but share the British Shorthair’s smarts. The Scottish Fold loves puzzles and is a very eager partner in games; expect to be greeted with demands for play when return after being out during the day.
Other breeds noted for their smarts are Burmese, Bengal, Rex and Savannah cats. Do bear in mind that “smart” doesn’t mean “obedient” — often quite the reverse. Intelligent breeds often need more attention than your average cat.
Feline intelligence: fascinating facts
There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding feline intelligence. This is partly due to a lack of research – it’s only relatively recently that scientists have started seriously looking at what’s going on inside those fuzzy little heads. A cat’s brain is quite small. It weighs from about 25 to 30 grams (roughly in the region of am ounce) and is approximately five centimetres long (just a couple of inches).
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this small size means a lack of complexity, however. The brain of a cat contains, on average, 300,000,000 neurons. That’s almost twice as many as the average dog, who gets by with 160 million. Where much of the dog’s processing power goes on interpreting social cues and what you might call “networking”, the cat’s brainpower is deployed towards perception and spatial awareness.
In particular, the cat’s visual cortex is huge compared to many other animals. She also puts a lot of her mental energy into memory – cats have excellent memories. Just one skill that the feline possesses is object permanence – the understanding that just because an object can no longer be seen, that doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist. For comparison, human infants generally develop this ability between four and seven months, and it’s considered a significant milestone.
Object permanence is the skill that lets your British Shorthair know unerringly where you’ve stashed the treats and hunt them down accordingly. The cat’s excellent memory will then retain the location of the treat cupboard indefinitely. Oddly enough, a cat’s brain is very similar to a human’s in terms of structures and overall anatomy. They have a cerebral cortex much like ours, with similar lobes. Everything is just scaled down and redistributed to better fit the needs of these little predators.