Can animals count?

Can animals count? This question I posed to my friend. She responded with, “Yes! No! Wait… maybe?” I had the same reaction to this question. In this blog post I will share my thoughts and findings with you and maybe you too might wonder, can animals actually count?


In the 1900’s, there was supposedly a horse that was able to learn basic maths and could count. The owner would ask the horse maths questions that involved adding and dividing. The horse would tap its hoof with the answer. For example, if the answer was two, the horse would tap its hoof twice. However, although it seemed that the horse was counting, I think that it wasn’t, It must have been trained to react that way. As I continued to watch the video about this horse, I came to the discovery that indeed, it was found through experiments, that the horse responded the way it did, due to cues (Bourassa, 2012).


There was an experiment carried out to see if lions could count. It seemed that the lions in this experiment were able to count if the number of lions coming (who were intruders) were greater than those in their own group. They were able to do so by listening to the lions roars. Males from the intruders would quantify the amount of females that were in the group before attacking. They could distinguish if there were one or three lionesses by the sound of their roars (BBC News, 2003). Maybe these lions are not aware that they are counting  or actively counting, as they are not thinking, one, two, three like us.  However, maybe they are counting since they could work out the exact amount of lions in prides accurately (BBC News, 2003). If lions can count, why is it that their counting is limited to five or six? (Silver, 2015).

Baby chicks?

An experiment was carried out with baby chicks to see if they could count (these chicks had not been trained). Three balls were hid behind a screen and two behind another. Chicks went to the screen that had the largest amount of balls. Then it was changed up, when some of the balls had been moved, the chicks could “count” that another screen had more balls there. It was believed that they could add and subtract (Gill, 2009).


It is argued that chimps can count as they could understand originality since the chimps could remember the pattern of numbers. In this experiment, I think it was purely a “memory test”, the chimps had learned symbols or, the chimps did so because they wanted their peanuts (Muldertn, 2008).


It seems that dogs cannot discern numbers over one. They know the difference between something and nothing. This may be because they don’t need to “count”. There is no reason to, they do not need to “count” for survival whereas wolves do and they can “count” (Silver, 2015).


Alex, a parrot could allegedly understand colour, shape and could count but, it had been through years of training. Therefore, parrots do not have an innate ability to count like chicks believably have (Silver, 2015). Therefore, maybe animals can count if they are trained.

However, I think that these animals are able to recognise that there are more or less of something. They can recognise if a member of their pack is missing. For the chicks, maybe they just used their memory to know that there were more behind one screen than another and again, they could recognise the difference in quantity, they know what more than one looks like. Animals who have been trained can maybe count. Could we humans count if we were not  taught or trained to? Surely I would be able to recognise the concept of more or less like the chicks? However, isn’t the topic of quantity, one of the basic concepts or principles in maths? (Ma, 2010, pp.24-25).

Although, Gill argues that animals can count, “It is already known that many non-human primates and monkeys can count, and even in domestic dogs…” (Gill, 2009). 

Burns (no date, cited in Tennesen, 2009) accepts a similar idea as I do, stating that animals have an “[I]nnate ability to discern between small numbers”.  In contrast, Burns (no date, cited in Tennesen, 2009) also believes that animals can train themselves to recognise not just small numbers but numbers up to 12!

Interestingly, counting connects to longitudinal coherence, ” Counting is a combination of several skills, each building on the other” (Silver, 2015). Therefore, if animals could count, they would understand the basic elements of the key fundamental principles of mathematics! Additionally, being able to count requires an understanding of ordinality meaning, having an understanding of a series one, two, three. For example, two comes after three and three after two (Oxford Living Dictionaries, 2017).

It seems that animals can count and some are better than others (Silver, 2015). On the other hand, the idea that animals can count is contradicted by Whorf (no date, cited in Bredow, 2006). Whorf’s theory states that if you don’t have any words for numbers, you cannot understand maths and numbers (Silver, 2015).  Therefore, if animals don’t have words for numbers can they really understand numbers, can they count? The Pirahã people are a tribe that did not have words for numbers but, they could understand quantity of more or less and had words for these. When Daniel Everett tried to teach them to count to ten in Portuguese, he found that they could not count and it is not because they are any less intelligent than others. This theory is backed up by an example of The Warlpiri group in Australia who had words, “one-two-many”  for counting and when they were taught numbers past two in English, they were able to (Bredow, 2006).

So, from developing my understanding of fundamental maths and applying it to my research, do I think animals can count? Well, from the evidence above it seems that animals have the ability to recognise a difference in quantity. It is necessary for example, for survival and other animals can count if they are trained. Although, if animals can recognise and understand quantity that demonstrates a basic understanding of a basic principle or idea in mathematics, quantity (Ma, 2010, p. 104).  However, after looking at Whorf’s theory it suggests that animals cannot count because there need to be words for numbers first in order to understand numbers and to be able to count.

Please comment any thoughts you might have on whether animals can count!


  • BBC News (2003) ‘ Counting lions roar for help’, 19 September. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).
  • Bourassa, P. (2012) Clever Hans. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).
  • Bredow, R. (2006) Living without Numbers or Time. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).
  • Gill, V. (2009) ‘Baby chicks do basic arithmetic’, BBC News, 1 April. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).
  • Ma, L., (2010) Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics (Anniversary Ed.)New York: Routledge.
  • Oxford Living Dictionaries (2017) Definition of ordinal number in English. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).
  • Tennesen, M. (2009) More Animals Seem to Have Some Ability to Count. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).
  • Muldertn (2008) Chimps counting. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).
  • Silver, K. The animals that have evolved the ability to count. Available at: (Accessed: 7 October 2017).

2 thoughts on “Can animals count?

  1. Richard

    What a great post! I laughed out loud when you said that dogs can tell the differnece between something and nothing. The whole idea of animal intelligence is fascinating (I think). Your discussion about understanding quantity and counting and the differences between these shows you are really thinking about maths at a deeper level now. I think the link to Whorf’s theory is also very interesting – I only just learnt about this at the weekend from a friend and now keep thinking about it a lot – your reference shows that connectedness is so important! This si a really great blog – please keep the posts coming!

  2. Carrie McLennan

    Great post – well considered and you have thought about the different perspectives and arguments – applying critical thinking! Lovely to read this after talking to you yesterday. Really turns the concept of counting on its head!


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