Is Sullivan the World’s Smartest cat?

Sullivan cat who can read smart cat

I first came across the story of Sullivan and his sister Sarah, two 15-year-old formerly feral Maine Coon cats from Greenwich, NY, in the December 2011 issue of CatFancy. According to the article, these cats have learned to identify shapes, colors, and numbers. They can even grasp abstract concepts such as same or different and bigger or smaller.

Joan Kosby, Sullivan and Sarah’s human, was inspired by psychology professor and animal cognition expert Irene Pepperberg, who worked with Alex, an African Grey Parrot, and taught him many of these same skills. Kosby used repetition and rewarded the cats with food treats and praise.

I had to go see for myself, and came across a whole series of videos showing Sullivan (the more outgoing of the two cats) in action. Here are just a few:

Introduction to Sullivan:

httpv://youtu.be/Pf5styGOP_8

Sullivan identifies shapes and colors:

httpv://youtu.be/kb_R9i9beDs

Sullivan knows numbers and says good-bye”

httpv://youtu.be/VvK0q60SXG8

For more videos of Sullivan, please visit his YouTube channel.

Have you trained your cats do to “tricks” like these? Please share your stories in a comment!

27 Comments on Is Sullivan the World’s Smartest cat?

  1. Hannah
    September 29, 2017 at 5:12 pm (2 years ago)

    That is the craziest cat. I mean, i love cat videos (like the rest of the internet) but they’re not normally this mindblowing. I wonder if sullivan is a hoax

    Reply
    • Joan Kosby
      September 30, 2017 at 2:29 pm (2 years ago)

      I was one of Sullivan’s “persons,” and I can assure you this was no hoax. Sully’s been dead now for a little over three years, and I still miss him (and his very shy but equally smart sister) terribly. I think cats–and most animals–are much smarter than humans generally give them credit for. I highly recommend checking out videos of Alex the parrot. Unlike my cats, Alex was a research subject, and the work done with him was subject to strict scientific methodology. He was also a hoot!

      Reply
  2. Joan Kosby
    April 26, 2014 at 5:40 pm (6 years ago)

    Just found “The Conscious Cat.” Thanks so much for posting this!

    Unlike Irene Pepperberg, I did not approach this as a formal experiment. However, I did enlist my husband’s help occasionally to see if I might be cuing the cats. One of us would ask the question and then leave the room; the other would have the answers (but not know which was correct), and ask the cat to find the answer. Sullivan scored very well, even under these conditions.

    I was hoping to find a researcher who would be interested in conducting the same type of work with cats that Pepperberg does with African Grey Parrots, but was not successful.

    Sadly Sullivan’s sister Sarah died in June of last year. Sully’s not well, but is still a happy guy. He is 18 years old now.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      April 27, 2014 at 5:24 am (6 years ago)

      Thanks for stopping by, Joan! I’m so sorry about Sarah. All my best to Sullivan, I’m glad to hear he’s still happy.

      Reply
      • Joan Kosby
        September 12, 2014 at 5:06 pm (6 years ago)

        I thought some of your readers might want to know that Sullivan died on August 5. My husband and I will be grieving for a long time. Sullivan was an amazing animal, and we miss his happy spirit, his love and his very loud purr.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          September 12, 2014 at 9:18 pm (6 years ago)

          Oh Joan, I’m so sorry to hear that. My heart goes out to you.

          Reply
  3. Julia Williams
    November 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm (8 years ago)

    I;m a little skeptical that he knows the words or colors. It’s not impossible, but probably more likely he’s been well trained and there are some cues he takes from the owner. Cats can certainly learn tricks if you have enough patience and cat treats. I guess only Sullivan and his owner know if this is a trick or if he truly is the world’s smartest cat, MOL.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 7:35 pm (8 years ago)

      I think he’s well trained, Julia, but I also think there are plenty of other cats who are as smart, if not smarter, than he is.

      Reply
  4. ScootPoot
    November 16, 2011 at 6:37 pm (8 years ago)

    Very well trained cat. I’ve done some stuff with my cat too. He can say “Hello”, “I love you”, and “Mom”. At first it was because I would give him a treat every time he would, now it gets annoying because if I sleep a little later than normal (7am) he sits at my husbands and my bedroom door and says “Mom” until I get up and feed him hahaha! He’s also learned how to sit, stay, lay down, and roll over. He is 7 years old and I’ve had him since before his eyes were open.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 7:34 pm (8 years ago)

      I love that your cat is using what you taught him to his advantage!

      Reply
  5. Kit
    November 16, 2011 at 10:59 am (8 years ago)

    Given that he’s being shown English words and asked to touch them, I’m guessing this is a fantastic example of the Clever Hans effect. This lady clearly loves her cat and spends a lot of time with him. He’s definitely a smart little guy, too.

    But I don’t think a cat can read. That he can identify written words and colors that cats cannot physically differentiate is the ultimate red flag that he’s cuing off his owner’s body language to figure out which item he’s supposed to touch. Still a cool trick, but it doesn’t say anything about the cat’s ability to understand abstract concepts or even the questions he’s being asked.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 11:17 am (8 years ago)

      I agree, Kit. I think the connection between cat and trainer has a lot to do with the cat’s ability and willingness to learn these behaviors.

      Reply
    • NewGrayMare
      November 16, 2011 at 11:17 am (8 years ago)

      I beg to differ on the inability for cats (or any hunter) to differentiate colors. After all, if hunters couldn’t see color, why is pray so perfectly camouflaged?

      Reply
  6. Layla Morgan Wilde
    November 16, 2011 at 10:59 am (8 years ago)

    He’s smart but no smarter than most cats. He’s well trained.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 11:14 am (8 years ago)

      Layla, I agree – most of what he does is due to training. I have to commend his human for the patience it must have taken to get him to this stage!

      Reply
  7. Esme
    November 16, 2011 at 9:44 am (8 years ago)

    Great videos-my kitties know the sound of the fridge and wet food-does that count for anything?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 11:12 am (8 years ago)

      I think it does, Esme!

      Reply
      • Elizabeth
        February 13, 2012 at 1:39 am (8 years ago)

        I think cats easily learn things that have to do with food! My cat’s favorite food is turkey, so I get her turkey treats and turkey Fancy Feast, and she eventually learned what the word “turkey” means! Whenever I say “turkey” she gets really excited and talkative because she knows she’s getting some, haha!

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          February 13, 2012 at 6:21 am (8 years ago)

          Food is definitely the magic “trick” when it comes to training cats, Elizabeth!

          Reply
  8. NewGrayMare
    November 16, 2011 at 9:20 am (8 years ago)

    I just LOVE how he can see colors. I know many people swear dogs are color blind, but my dachshund knew she blended in with my brown carpet and could sneak up on me.

    I am also convinced that cats can taste much better than scientists tell us (as in sense of taste! Not eating kitty for my dinner). My cat Misty loves anything sweet. I wonder if there were some sort of experiment I could do to prove that she can taste…

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 11:12 am (8 years ago)

      That’s interesting about your Misty loving sweets, NewGrayMare. I just recently read an article that cats can’t taste sweets due to a faulty sweet receptor gene. I bet Misty would happily participate in a taste test experiment where you present all her favorite treats…

      Reply
  9. Rumpy Drummond
    November 16, 2011 at 7:30 am (8 years ago)

    I am convinced that animals are WAY more intelligent than most humans.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 11:11 am (8 years ago)

      I agree wholeheartedly, Rumpy!

      Reply
      • Smokey kiki lala
        October 5, 2012 at 8:53 am (7 years ago)

        Definately more clever than sum ppl i know 😛

        Reply
  10. Manny and Spunky Doodle
    November 16, 2011 at 6:58 am (8 years ago)

    These videos are amazing! Sullivan is definitely smarter than my cats but then, I’m sure they may be able to learn tricks too if I just had as much smarts and patience as Sullivan’s owner. Thanks for sharing these, I subscribed to Sullivan’s YouTube channel now.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 16, 2011 at 11:10 am (8 years ago)

      I think you’re right, with patience and time, most cats could learn these same things. It’s still fun to watch the videos.

      Reply

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