What Are the World’s Smartest Pets and Animals?

Humans have held the top spot on the intelligence scale for tens of thousands of years. Once humans began to stand upright, craft tools, harness fire and organize civilizations, we began to believe that we had become cognitively removed from our fellow animals.

The notion that the human brain can conjure up skyscrapers, create artificial intelligence software and live daily in a state of self-awareness, gave us a superiority complex that we are just beginning to question.

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But some animals are smarter than others. And at some point, humans started keeping them as pets. As animal behavioral science continues to grow, we are learning that the divide between human and animal intelligence isn’t as vast as we may think, especially when it comes to intelligent pets.

So how do you rank the world’s smartest pets? It’s tough because you’re pitting species against species. But there are some animals in the world, domesticated and wild, that have reputations for having high intelligence. Here are 10 of them.

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5 Smartest Pets in the World

1. African Grey Parrots

African grey parrots are one of the most intelligent birds in the world. They have the highest levels of animal intelligence of any creature domesticated or wild.

These intelligent birds are best-known for their human language comprehension and accurate mimicry. However, researchers have found that they also have extensive problem-solving skills and excellent memories that allow them to surpass the cognitive abilities of a human toddler.

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Some researchers even hypothesize that some high-performing African greys can identify objects, memorize patterns and problem-solve faster than an average 5-year-old.

2. Pigs

At first glance, you may not believe that pigs are some of the smartest pets in the world, but in reality, they are much closer to the fictional hogs from George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm” than you might think. It is, however, unlikely that these gentle, pudgy creatures will rise up and establish a communist dictatorship.

Many researchers found through comparative psychology research that pigs have the spatial awareness and memorization abilities of a human toddler. They also demonstrate high levels of social and emotional intelligence with other pigs, as well as a wide variety of nonhuman animals outside of their species. These characteristics make them highly intelligent creatures that make awesome farm animals as well as pets.

3. Dogs

Dog owners know that “man’s best friend” is more than a loyal companion. It’s also one of the smartest animals in the world, not to mention the smartest pets. Researchers believe that the average intelligence of domesticated dogs ranks on par with human 2-year-olds, although intelligence varies significantly between dog breeds.

The border collie, for instance, is the smartest breed, closely followed by poodles, German shepherds and golden retrievers. They learn tricks and other skills much faster than other breeds and can even undergo rigorous training to become trusted guide dogs and police dogs that provide highly specialized support for humans. An average dog can also learn words and understand emotions, and there have been countless stories of their loyal and brave actions protecting and saving the people they love.

4. Cats

No. 4 on the smartest pets list is the common house cat. The ancient Egyptians considered the cat a sacred god on Earth, and these intelligent animals never seemed to lose that sense of entitlement. These independent felines make good pets for humans who want a companion to solve problems independently. They rank high on the intelligence scale and excel at recalling essential information for navigating and thriving in their environments. Like the border collie for dogs, one species of cat, known as the Abyssinian, demonstrates the highest intelligence levels of learning and deduction skills of any domesticated feline.

5. Rats and Mice

Despite their poor eyesight, rats and mice are able to utilize their excellent memory and problem-solving skills to solve mazes and complex tests. For this reason, they are often forced into the service of laboratory experiments and (often cruel) scientific testing.

But owners of these tiny rodents know have big hearts to go along with their high intelligence. One study from Bowling Green University showed that rats return human affection, enjoy playing, and can even produce chirping laughter when tickled. This ability to love and laugh has inspired animal rights activists to protest using rodents and other creatures in harmful experiments.

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Most Intelligent Animals in the Wild

A conversation about the smartest animal intelligence wouldn’t be complete without mentioning other animals in the wild. Sure, they don’t make the best pets, but they’re definitely some of the world’s smartest animals.

1. Great Apes

This group is comprised of our closest relatives in the Hominidae family, which includes gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees. Humans share 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, which are arguably the smartest animal in the wild. Chimps develop tight-knit social structures, make tools, and exhibit individual personalities and self-awareness.

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In captivity, the great apes quickly learn human words and sign language and can even comprehend abstract ideas like identifying objects and concepts not currently present in their environment. Although many great apes are in captivity due to endangered populations, they fare much better in the wild since controlled facilities rarely provide them the mental stimulation they need to live a fulfilled life.

2. Dolphins

Dolphins are some of the smartest animals in the world; they are basically the humans of the sea. Their brains weigh about 3.5 pounds, giving them the second-highest brain-to-body size ratio in the animal kingdom. Although they don’t possess the same language skills as people, researchers have proven that dolphins have complex communication structures that allow them to navigate challenges far beyond the simple task of solving mazes.

Dolphins have been known to use their high intelligence to form social groups, use tools, and even pass on nonessential cultural traditions. For example, a dolphin named Billie spent some time in a training facility. Billie mimicked her fellow dolphins’ show trick of “tail-walking” above the water’s surface without human training. When Billie was released back into the wild, there were several eyewitness accounts of wild dolphins performing the show-stopping ability, even after Billie’s death and despite the skill giving them no evolutionary advantage.

3. Elephants

It should come as no surprise that these gigantic creatures have the largest brains of any land mammal on Earth. They are known for their excellent memories that live dormant in 251 billion neurons (nearly three times more than humans). This diverse network of neural pathways provides elephants with exceptional long-term memory storage for navigation routes and feeding-ground and fresh-water locations, which can become the difference between life and death in the drought-prone regions in which they often roam.

4. Crows

Crows are arguably the most intelligent birds in the world. They are not as charismatic as the African grey, but they are more equipped to overcome dynamic challenges in both rural and urban environments.

For example, researchers from the University of Oxford have witnessed New Caledonian crows constructing compound tools to bypass a puzzle-box experiment to reach the hidden treat inside. This feat confirms that crows have the ability to problem-solve at a level only ever achieved by humans and chimpanzees.

Other species of crow have been recorded using breadcrumbs for fishing, and dragging fishing lines out of the water for an easy meal. However, arguably the most incredible cognitive feat of crows took place in Japan, where local crows recognized the color of streetlights to crack hard-shelled nuts with the wheels of passing vehicles while staying out of harm’s way.

5. Squirrels

Despite their cute and flighty nature, squirrels are actually methodical, strategic survivors in predator-heavy environments. The storage habits of common gray squirrels best illustrate the most notable example of this forward-thinking approach.

Gray squirrels require a high caloric intake for their size and, therefore, must stash away food for lean months in the winter season. These highly intelligent creatures construct nests known as dreys high in the canopy safe from danger, but bury food in several locations in case their stash is compromised. Squirrels are even known to establish false caches to confuse would-be thieves and protect the majority of their nuts and other food.

Octopuses deserve a mention on this list of smartest animals. Their intelligence and adaptability to their environment are in a league of their own — and that’s part of the problem when researchers try to pinpoint how smart they are. Octopuses have large brains with more neurons than a human brain — more than half of which are in their long tentacle-like arms. That means their arms literally have a mind of their own. Researchers have even seen disconnected limbs crawling and lifting food to where their mouth would be long after they’ve been cut off the octopus’ body. Octopuses also build homes using coconut shells and will camouflage their den with multicolored rocks to hide from predators.

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