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What Are the Smartest Animals?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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Intelligence has been defined as the ability to achieve complex goals in complex environments. Some animals clearly are better than this at others, leading people to say that they are smarter. This is further evidenced by animals who are part of the police force, as well as those emotional support animals that aid humans in their daily lives. Humans are the smartest animals on the planet. This is not anthropocentric conceit talking — by any objective standard of ability to deal with complexity, humans beat all other animals, hands down. Sure, animals can be trained like service dogs or cats, but that hardly compares to the tasks that humans can accomplish. Even some of the least intelligent humans can solve problems no animal could hope to. Despite this, sometimes it's the other way around. For instance, some humans need emotional support so much that they need to get a support animal so they can function normally. Animals can be trained as in service animals or those animals that perform and entertain, but it doesn't mean that they understand the logic behind the commands or that they can do it on their own without training.

Aside from humans, however, the territory gets murkier. There are psychiatric service dogs and cats that somehow go beyond their training when providing their humans with emotional support. Some of them have been known to respond to drops in blood sugar, anxiety attacks, or panic attacks - things that not even some medical professionals can detect with no data on hand.  The animal most often cited as being smartest are chimps, followed by the other great apes (gorillas and orangutans). Jane Goodall, a primatologist famous for her 45-year study of Tanzanian chimp social and family life, made a list of five of the smartest animals for USA Today:

  1. Great apes, which have learned parts of American Sign Language (ASL), and even taught it to each other. Furthermore, some great apes have been able to perform some basic functions on specially-designed computer programs, including solving certain problems involving colored shapes.
  2. Whales and dolphins (cetaceans) are probably the smartest in the aquatic world. Like humans, cetaceans are capable of creating a mental image of and communicating with their fellows at great distances, using echolocation and special clicking noises. Some of these "songs" can be quite complex, and humans are at a loss to describe what they mean, though what has been uncovered is a testament to the animals' intelligence. This doesn't give humans much benefit though, unlike emotional support dogs or cats, since these are aquatic animals.
  3. Elephants are the third on Goodall's list. Like cetaceans, elephants can communicate over great distances using low frequencies only their bulky heads can produce. As the phrase goes, "an elephant never forgets," and it's true that the memory of these animals is remarkable. These animals even have death rituals, where they "grieve" over their dead companions, showing a surprising amount of empathy for a non-human animal.
  4. Another group of smart animals, the only on the list that isn't a mammal, are parrots. Parrots are an order of birds that strongly pursue the "K selection strategy," meaning the strategy of their species is one of quality, not quantity. According to Goodall, one parrot, N'kisi, knows 971 words, where "know" is defined as using the word five times independently in proper context — not just repeating what humans said. Parrots are capable of making comments and initiating short conversations.
  5. The last on the list are the dogs and cats. Being the preferred animal for emotional support, you probably already have an idea about their intelligence. For them to be able to assist humans when they're struggling is a clear sign that they are capable of being more than just cute pets. To anyone with a dog or cat, their relative intelligence is obvious. This is why they're the preferred animals when training ESAs. Not only are they fun to have but they're also very easy to teach with tasks and tricks. They can understand the way a human feels by their facial expressions and tone of voice. This makes them the perfect candidate as emotional support animals. It's really no wonder why more and more people are getting one, since they're not just beautiful souls but they also perform a function no other animal can. Both dogs and cats can be trained to perform complex tasks in numerous ways, even potty-trained, but dogs are clearly more inclined to take orders from humans. This is why both dogs and cats make amazing ESAs. Aside from their natural fondness of humans, they are also easy to care for and have unique and fun personalities. Additionally, from a business point of view, establishments that allow ESAs entry are more likely to have regular clients. ESAs are also more behaved than regular pets, so cleanup or noise problems are usually easily avoided.

Among the invertebrates, octopuses are often cited as the most intelligent. They still wouldn't compare to what emotional support dogs or cats can do for their humans, though. Pigs are another intelligent group, as are squirrels. Sure they're no support dog or cat, but they have their own strengths and weaknesses as animals. In fact, there are some pigs being trained to serve as ESAs for humans. Despite it not being a popular option yet, it is gaining traction and more and more people are starting to look into it. Scientists are just beginning to learn the ins and outs of animal intelligence, and much more remains to be learned. Among all these animals, cats and dogs make the most ideal emotional support animalsbecause they're easy to handle, the pack a lot of personality in their small packages, and they can easily be trained to assist their humans. If you're interested in getting one, you can start the process by securing an ESA letter as proof that you would indeed benefit from having one in your care.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon967342 — On Aug 26, 2014

I think that dogs and cats are equally intelligent in their own ways. For example, dogs can be trained to do special things for their masters. Cats are smart enough to train *us* to do what they want, and I once read a comment that said a cat remembered where the food was and it was only once a whole year ago, so cats probably have good memories. But it really depends on the individual.

Some dogs can't be trained, and some cats can be trained, because there are doglike cats (such as the ragdoll) and catlike dogs (such as chihuahuas). I read an article about animals who saved their owners, and I saw both cats and dogs saved their humans, like some of you may have read about Tara the cat who saved that toddler from that ferocious dog, and dogs save people too, so really it just depends on the breed, age, and way they were raised or treated. Like a cat who was raised with dogs may tend to have less cattitude. It really just depends on the individual, in my opinion.

By anon927365 — On Jan 23, 2014

Cats were put on the list by a biased author. Cats and dogs do not share equal intelligence levels. Dogs are more intelligent. Studies have backed it up, if one lacks the common sense to understand why this is so.

By anon316232 — On Jan 28, 2013

Hyenas are really smart, definitely smarter than dogs. Also Corvids (crows, magpies etc). Their intelligence is compared with great apes and they can even do some things that other primates fail at.

By anon303764 — On Nov 16, 2012

My close relative studied rats at Harvard as a professor and in Germany. I didn't realize that rats were very smart. From personal experience, I did not think they were smart, and they are definitely not as smart as cats because they get outsmarted by mine.

By anon303484 — On Nov 14, 2012

Crows are one of the most intelligent animals in the wild. Look it up.

By anon281911 — On Jul 26, 2012

Rats are surely to be added, but about cats/dogs placing, it is correct. Wild cats and cats with oriental genes, as well as shepherd dogs, show a great intelligence rate in solving complex problems, such as opening doors, trying to answer the phone, using tools. Bees are widely documented for their intelligence, and also ants. They were believed to belong to the "collective intelligence series," but now this has to be reconsidered, because of their use of tools individually.

This is a deep field to explore, especially for any human being who has not observed animals throughout his or her whole life. --FD, Animal Behaviourist

By anon261128 — On Apr 14, 2012

The smartest should be nobody, Every animal has its abilities.

By anon253882 — On Mar 11, 2012

Well, I agree that cats are smarter. I mean look, they can be trained to use the toilet and they helped uncover hidden spyware. The only reason cats aren't tamed easily is because they're stubborn. They don't do bandwagon. They like to think before they own this person as their owner.

I had two cats and they were definitely smart. You see, I was about to open the oven when I was younger and it was still on. Well, my cat started meowing and wouldn't let me get past. You see, she was protecting me.

Dogs are smart, but in a different way. They like to please others and go along with anything. Who says you can't tame a cat? You just have to give it time. My cat is now able to use a leash and she didn't scratch or bite me. I let her get used to it and rewarded hers afterward.

By anon197466 — On Jul 17, 2011

I would rank horses right up there on the intelligence scale. I have owned dogs, cats, rats, parrots, as well as cows, pigs, and horses, and I would put horses at or near the top.

By anon144176 — On Jan 19, 2011

@ Anon80327: It's clearly obvious that you don't know what you're talking about. Unless you mean that domestic cats are more intelligent than you are, then I will have to agree, especially if you can allow bias to cloud over truth.

There is absolutely no evidence of cats using tools to hunt for their prey. Nor any evidence of cats ever teaching their young complex behavior (e.g. orca hunts).

By anon136476 — On Dec 22, 2010

I have a parrot and they are definitely smart.

I have to say that birds tend to be slightly smarter than dogs and cats. I used to have a dog and a cat as well, and my bird was very smart.

Every day I would lift and wave my hand and say "hello!" About a week and a half later, my parrot is waving her foot high in the air and says "hello!" before I could. Horses are also overlooked. They are smarter than dogs and cats, but not smarter than parrots.

By anon121481 — On Oct 24, 2010

Wolves are indeed "more intelligent" than dogs but, at the end of the day, which of the two is "smarter" (i.e. who was "smart" enough to partner with the animal at the apex of the food chain (humans), thereby ensuring the dog's survival beyond what it could have possibly hoped for by living in the wild as a "wolf".

By anon121042 — On Oct 22, 2010

Jane Goodall is the world's leading expert on Great Apes, and obviously has good and valid reasons to list Great Apes as the world's most intelligent animals based on her lifetime of study with them, their ability to learn, problem solve, use tools, remember, use social communication to teach others what they have learned, and even mourn their dead.

However, I do not believe she was quoted correctly, as I do not believe she would leave out lesser primates, who display all of the above traits as well, as do elephants, and wolves,and although I have not heard of whales and dolphins mourning their dead, all other attributes apply to them as well. I have had rats, raccoons, squirrels, parrots, horses, and cats, and worked with birds of prey, and have found all to be amazing problem solvers, especially raccoons, and parrots, but parrots ability varies as widely from species to species as abilities from great apes to marmosets varies.

I have also heard that pigs are capable of complex learned behavior. I have found horses and cats to be incredibly in tune with the emotions of their humans, and learn what brings rewards to them and avoids unpleasantness. Wild cat species show a great ability to achieve complex goals in complex environments, look at the social hunting of a pride of lions, or a mother cheetah with her cubs, or mother tiger with her cubs. Look at a leopard who carries prey up a tree to avoid having it stolen.

In general, I believe a carnivore needs more complex behavior to survive. They wait, they predict, they adjust and adapt. One sign of an intelligent species is one where the young spends a long time with the parents learning survival skills. All of the animals on Jane Goodall's list meet that criteria, (the first three spending 10 years or more learning with the parental group), as do wolves, wild horses,wild felines,and birds of prey, (often two years or more) but pigs, squirrels, or rats do not meet that criteria. Raccoons also learn a lot from their parents, and are therefore more difficult animals to rehabilitate to the wild when orphaned. They have to be taught to recognize wild foods, fish, hunt crayfish, find bird eggs, and ultimately to avoid people, if they are to survive in our complex, increasingly human-filled world.

By anon114307 — On Sep 28, 2010

Cats have the same kind of subtle intelligence that women have, and they are nonconformists, as women are, by nature. Whereas men are conformists, and pack animals by nature, seeking rank and status among their brethren, always.

If you chase a cat, she will be less likely to come to you, but if you show her respect, she will quietly seek your company. If you give a dog clear orders, and reward him, he will take you for his master, immediately.

Aren't these same things true of women and men respectively? And just as we undervalue the intelligence of women, and overvalue the intelligence of men, so do we with cats and dogs respectively. We consider dogs the more valuable animals.

And dogs are valuable. If I want to be alerted about intruders at night, I wouldn't want to count on my cat to awaken me. But by the same token, if those intruders were rats, my dog wouldn't be much help.

Unless of course, it was my actual dog, which is a Chihuahua. Basically a cat-dog. They're girly dogs, and they're ratters from way back.

She's a great watch dog, too. The best of both worlds.

By anon111736 — On Sep 17, 2010

Ants are super intelligent. They farm, planting sweet grasses they like and weed their fields, they do animal husbandry, raising aphids in corrals, they are the only animal other than humans, that bury their dead, they have ant hospitals where they nurse ants, feed sick ants and get them healthy. In Africa, there are ants that bake biscuits. By chewing grain, making little biscuits they bake on hot rocks in the sun.

By anon97536 — On Jul 20, 2010

I watched a documentary that said birds, parrots in particular, were the smartest animals. From what I've observed from owning cats, dogs and a bird and also from observing the wild ones in the garden, I reckon birds would have to be in the top three, at least.

By anon92793 — On Jun 30, 2010

Well I know this is wrong because scientists have agreed that the smartest animals are those with complex lifestyles and hierarchical structures among family groups, but best of all their ability to problem solve, whether that means using tools to their benefit or to create new strategies to get around the situation.

For example, Orcas have been known to hunt crab eater seals. If, by any chance, they weren't quick enough, the seal might slip onto a piece of floating ice. Orcas developed this strategy to overcome. If you look closely enough the Orcas swim as fast as they can toward the ice and quickly dive underneath it, causing the water to rise over the berg, crashing against the seal, causing it to be knocked off on the side where the other orcas are already waiting hungrily.

Also, if you look close enough you'll see that there are younger orcas present and since the seal got away and Orcas are 90 percent likely to catch and kill all prey (as of 05') scientists believe this was just training.

So in conclusion, Orcas are the smartest animal and ravens or crows are second. In my opinion.

By anon84951 — On May 18, 2010

i have heard that cats are smart but dogs are smarter because cats are independent and don't want to be told or taught what to do whereas dogs are more willing. but they both are very loving all the same!

By anon83098 — On May 09, 2010

@anon80327: Her arguments are good, and i really agree with the list. Are you sure that you aren't saying that just because you are a fan of cats?

By anon80327 — On Apr 27, 2010

Cats are the most intelligent, curious, and the most manipulative. Goodall doesn't know what she's talking about.

By anon74925 — On Apr 04, 2010

what about pigs?

By anon74030 — On Mar 30, 2010

I personally believe what makes humans the most intelligent species is creativity (in that we can create new things born from concept as a type of "ex nihilo"), and improvisation (we can we change our environment to meet our needs, and don't need to rely on generations of adaptation to take effect). These two characteristics have yet to be seen in any other animal.

Some might contend that beavers and any nesting animal is showing hints of these characteristics.

In rebuttal I argue that, to the best of my knowledge, such behavior is instinctive, whereas the characteristics I present are learned behavior.

It would be exceptionally rare for a human to construct a viable shelter with entirely zero instruction on the subject matter.

By anon73416 — On Mar 27, 2010

Bottlenose dolphins are actually smarter than Chimps, not by much, but they have a larger neocortex, so I think you should say that the exception to the cetaceans is that the Bottlenose dolphin is smarter than a Chimpanzee. I learned this from my studies at university and until it is proven otherwise, you are wrong.

By anon73169 — On Mar 25, 2010

Wolves are much smarter than dogs. The intellect a dog has deteriorated greatly due to the constant inbreeding we've done to get the desirable breed.

For a dog, we can state they are remarkable. But do know that every dog is actually a wolf and for a wolf, they are remarkably stupid and retarded. A dog would find it almost impossible to survive in the wild and most breeds will die off in the matter of a few generations.

The husky and other wolf-like dogs are most likely to survive, by being accepted by wolves into their packs and then breeding with them, transforming their kind back into wolves.

By anon73168 — On Mar 25, 2010

Cats behave the same fashion as humans. To call a cat stupid because of how it behaves, is to call a human stupid, because our behavior is comparable. We are both lazy, stubborn, obnoxious, spoiled and good for nothing.

By anon70129 — On Mar 12, 2010

Why aren't wolves included? Well, I would say they have been included, since dogs are included--because the dog, Canis lupus familiaris, is simply a subspecies of the wolf. A domesticated version, if you will.

By anon65376 — On Feb 12, 2010

Pigs have been overlooked. They have been shown to perform the same cognitive tasks as chimps.

By anon63489 — On Feb 02, 2010

what about elephants?

By anon59006 — On Jan 05, 2010

what no wolves? are you serious! wolves are very smart I know four wolves that are kept as pets that can talk! if that isn't smart, then you obviously don't know what is especially seen as one of them can play the drum and key board and guitar! so put that wolf right on your list cause he's smarter than you'll ever know.

By anon51099 — On Nov 03, 2009

Horses are actually man's best friend and are extremely intelligent.

By anon48006 — On Oct 08, 2009

What about pigs?

By anon28217 — On Mar 12, 2009

Are turtles intelligent?

By anon27986 — On Mar 09, 2009

It isn't that cats are that stupid - although I agree they are quite stupid. It is a cat's natural inclination to always behave like a spoiled brat, never listening to what they are asked for, never doing what you expect from them.

Also, rats have an incredibly short attention span, compared to dogs and cats. While a cat can stay focused for hours when it tries to catch a mouse, not moving even its tail tip (which for a cat is clearly difficult when it doesn't sleep), and a dog more or less never loses focus once you get his interest on something, rats usually never focus on one and the same thing for more than maybe two minutes.

By bluefire — On Feb 09, 2009

Jane Goodall should know better than to rank the top 5 most intelligent animal groups! Intelligence cannot be easily (if at all) quantized in any linear progression. To wit, intelligence is a multi-flavored thing.

It has been known for some time that, among humans, there are at least 7 different kinds of intelligence. Some people have mathematical aptitudes/intelligence. Others are very good at communication. Still others are very good at self understanding, interpersonal relationships, spatial conceptualizations, etc. So you just can't say that one person is smarter than somebody else. Or that one animal is smarter than another. Dogs read human body language very well,.. much better than chimpanzees. And chimps can solve some memory-visual-hand/eye coordination tasks better than any humans. So who's smarter?

By anon26154 — On Feb 09, 2009

I don't count myself as an animal but I don't have any objection if somebody does.-Rob

By anon26147 — On Feb 09, 2009

Rats and squirrels vie for the position of most intelligent rodent (I don't have a source for that, but have read about both in some depth).

As pure personal opinion, and having owned rats, dogs, and cats, I would rank them in that order of intelligence (and possibly affection, though that varies greatly between individuals of each species). Rats are incredible spatial problem solvers, and can learn to come to their names and be potty trained. Some of them would also rather be sitting on *you* than anywhere else in the world. Plus, you don't have to walk 'em. (But they do need a lot of cage space, clean bedding, and a friend or two to be happy and healthy.)

Viva la Rat!

By monkey12 — On Feb 09, 2009

I really enjoyed learning more about animals. The little political blurb thrown in at the end was like dessert.

By DonBales — On Feb 09, 2009

Rats can be trained in the lab by the pain pleasure principle. It would seem that humans could be trained by the same method. However, it often seems to me that we reward bad behavior and punish good.

By DonBales — On Feb 09, 2009

Some have cited raccoons as intelligent because they are so curious. Ravens have been known and shown to be good problem solvers.

By anon21596 — On Nov 18, 2008

RATS have clearly been overlooked in this study!!

i don't see how they could have been omitted..and cats/dogs placed on this list?! WHAT?! all the rats i've ever met have been more perceptive, aware, trainable, and resourceful than ANY cat i've come across. honestly.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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