Cats and Dogs
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Can cats see in the mirror?

Why do cats ignore their reflections in mirrors

Ask Marilyn ® by Marilyn vos Savant is a column in Parade Magazine , published by PARADE, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA. According to Parade, Marilyn vos Savant is listed in the «Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame» for «Highest IQ.»

Larry Responds

Marilyn goofed again. Every cat I know ignores mirrors, but every kitten I’ve ever known has played with the kitten in the mirror. After a couple of days, it ceases to be fun, because the kitten can predict every move the kitten in the mirror makes. After this, the kitten ignores the reflection, although I was able to prolong the fun a couple more days by moving the mirror without the kitten seeing me do it. After that, the kitten ignored all reflections.

As for TV images, the scan rate is designed with human vision persistence in mind. Cats are more motion sensitive, and may see the moving scan line instead of the image. Dogs and cats ignore sounds from stereo sets because the top of their hearing range is not produced from recordings designed for human hearing.

What I have observed is that the kitten quickly learns about reflections, and ignores them afterwards as just unimportant reflections. The game gets old when the kitten can predict every motion of the reflection. I have also seen kittens try to play with the kitten in the water dish, and getting an unpleasant surprise when they do. Since all kittens have to drink to survive, it seems to be an early learned behavior to ignore reflections. Marilyn says that they do not notice because they are smell oriented. If so, why do cats watch things out of windows?

Even humans ignore reflections. Unless you are actually using a mirror, do you notice what is in it? Also, have you ever taken a picture through a window, only to find a reflection of a lighted lamp in the middle of your picture when the prints come back? (And how many people have sent in such photos as pictures of UFOs if that lamp appears in the sky part of the picture?)

In the case of TV, the cat’s eye may have lower visual persistance time due to the shorter neural paths. If this is the case, the cat sees the moving scanning line rather than a picture. It looks to the cat sort of like an operating TV set in a scene of an old movie, where you see flickering bars rapidly moving down the screen. Studios have to use special techniques to make a TV picture appear normal in a movie.

Sometimes when a new mirror is «discovered» by a mature cat, it starts to raise a paw in defense. When it sees the image do exactly the same thing, it knows it is a reflection and walks away. It reacts quite differently when another cat is on the other side of a window. Maybe cats have more recognition of «self» than we recognize.

Specifically I say Marilyn is wrong because these animals have learned to ignore reflections through kittenhood experiences. I cite these through experience, having had the same cat for 17 years, 5 litters of kittens, and many relatives and neighbors with cats and kittens. and because I thought kittens were having so much fun playing with their reflections, that I wondered why they quit doing it so quickly.

Another Observation

I’d like to add the further comment that not all cats ignore mirrors. Mine always ignores the reflection of herself, but she routinely uses the bathroom and bedroom mirrors for viewing other objects. Namely, she looks right at us (in the mirror) and meows to get our attention, she follows us in the mirror as we walk around and/or go through the morning routine, and she watches TV in the bedroom mirror. So here’s at least one example of a cat that uses mirrors much like we humans do.

A note regarding cats and TVs: as mentioned, my cat watches TV. She loses interest usually after 1-5 minutes, but she defnitely is seeing something. Motion on the screen seems to be the key, hence an affinity for baseball and mouse cursors. She often sits at my desk and watches the computer monitor as I work, sometimes avidly and sometimes dispassionately. She used to bat at the mouse cursor and (of all things!) baseball pitchers’ butts, but she learned from the frustration and is now content to just follow the movements. She’s almost 7 now and quite set in her ways, so this is not ascribable to kitten or adolescent quirkiness.

Video Catnip

Television, with some videos such as «video catnip», shows that if you get their sound attention along with the visual, and it’s not predictable and obvious such as in a mirror, then the cat will jump at the tv (and crawl behind it to catch the critter.)

We have three cats. The one that’s the most interested is about 2. The completely uninterested one is about 4, and the one that occasionally checks it out is about 5. When we first turn it on, and crank up the volume, they’ll all come out and see what’s making the chirping noise, but only the youngster will stay. Heh. It’s a lot of fun.

Educational TV

the question was answered in a PBS, Discovery channel, or The Learning Channel presentation. Sorry I can’t remember the name, but I think it was simply «Cats».

Do Cats Understand Mirrors & Their Reflection?

Kitten touching reflection on glass door

Seeing how our cats act around mirrors can be quite entertaining, especially if you have a cat that gets a little spicy when they see themselves in the mirror. However, some cats don’t seem to even realize mirrors exist. So, what gives? Do cats even understand mirrors?

Do Cats Understand Mirrors?

Regardless of what it might seem like, cats actually don’t understand mirrors at all. Since they don’t create sound or interesting scents, they aren’t as entertaining as many toys are. Obviously, there is movement in a mirror when you create it, but many cats may not recognize the movement any differently than they would a shadow or a plant’s leaves moving when the air conditioner kicks on.

Even when cats acknowledge movement in the mirror, they are not aware they’re looking at themselves. The main reason for this is that cats lack self-awareness. Read on for more information about self-awareness and why it’s necessary to recognize oneself in a mirror.

What is Self-Awareness?

Gray cat looking at reflection in mirror

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize oneself as an individual and visually recognize one’s own appearance. There are a few ways that scientists have found to test self-awareness, and cats consistently do not succeed at these tests.

The red dot test is when an animal is sedated or anesthetized, and then a dot is applied to its body. When they wake up, the animal is presented with a mirror. If they see the dot and begin working to remove it, they show a sense of self-awareness. For example, if you woke up and looked in the mirror and had a red dot on your forehead, you’d start working to remove it. On the other hand, your cat would not recognize the dot as being out of place on itself.

A simpler test of self-awareness is showing an animal a mirror and watching closely for specific responses. If you put your cat in front of a mirror and they attempt to look behind the mirror as if they’re looking for the animal in the mirror, they’ve failed this simple mirror test. If your cat shows nervous or aggressive posturing, this is also a failure of this test. If your cat doesn’t respond to seeing themselves in the mirror, this isn’t an outright failure of the test, but it also doesn’t show a sense of self-awareness.

In Conclusion

Cats regularly exhibit mental and emotional intelligence in the way they interact with humans, other animals, and the world around them. However, cats have shown scientifically and anecdotally that they simply don’t understand how mirrors work. They don’t understand that they see themselves when they look in the mirror, even when you have a cat that seems to enjoy staring at themselves in the mirror at times.

Some cats may show attention to mirrors, but they are attracted to the movement or light reflections they see in or from mirrors. There are some cats that enjoy playing in front of a mirror, though, and some may even recognize that they see another animal when they look into a mirror.

Featured Image Credit: Kadres, Pixabay

  • Do Cats Understand Mirrors?
  • What is Self-Awareness?
  • In Conclusion
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