Are the animals intelligent? – A scientific view introduction

It’s very common we listen an affirmative answer to this question from pet owners, animal trainers and/or behavioral specialists. But, can we consider an animal intelligent? And how, where and when can we consider that?

Firstly, we should know the correct definition of Behavior, Intelligence, Intelligence (Biology), Cognition, Anthropomorphism, Declarative knowledge and Procedural knowledge.
Then, we must make a clear analysis of the matrices of this complex subject.

Intelligence is not an useful term in science for describing animal behavior. Intelligence is often used to describe general abilities in people.

Humans use that word to others species judged by a similar human intelligent behavior. This is not a good scientific practice, labeling behavior as intelligent is anthropomorphic and anthropocentric. By other side, we are not consider the individual intelligent, but a specific behavior displayed in a specific situation, with a possible past conditioning.

In a scientific view, are the cognitive abilities of animals responses in specific events that are study, not “clever” behaviors. Cognitive is often reserved for the manipulation of declarative rather than procedural knowledge (e.g., Dickinson 2008).

On this view, biological intelligence should be defined in terms of fitness (Evolution, Natural Selection and Fitness).

In the study of navigation, problem solving, social interactions, deceit, language, and thinking in animals, scientists have found it necessary to postulate cognitive processes.

But, such suggestions have proved to be controversial, and the question of whether animals can think remains an open question, that’s why it is important not labeling or defining behaviors or events if we really want critical and precise in our definitions.

I recommend the following reading below for a complete understanding of this subject and the possibility of you increase your critical reasoning.


ABRANTES, R. (2014). Evolution, an introduction. Wakan Tanka Publishers.

CHANCE, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, 6th, ed.

DARWIN, C. (1859) On the origin of species 1st Edition. John Murray, Albemarle Street.

DEMELLO, M. (2012). Animals and Society: An introduction to human-animal studies. Columbia University Press.

HICKMAN, Cleveland P. (2008). Integrated Principles of Zoology, 14 Edition. McGraw-Hill.

LORENZ, Konrad. (1981). The foundations of ethology.
Based on a translation of Vergleichende Verhaltensforschung, with revisions. Springer Science+Business Media New York.

MARTIN, P., Bateson, P. (2007). Measuring Behavior, An introductory guide. Cambridge University Press.

MCFARLAND, D. (1998). Animal Behaviour. Benjamin Cummings. 3rd ed.

MCFARLAND, D. (2006). Dictionary of Animal Behavior. Oxford University Press.

SHETTLEWORTH, S. (2010). Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior—Second Edition. Oxford University Press.

Autor: Roberto Barata

Animal Trainer, Consultant and Instructor; Ethology Institute Tutor; Scientific and Popular Articles Writer; Animal FACS and Pets in Society (anthrozoology) Technical Researcher.