Cats and Dogs
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Can cats see themselves in mirrors?

Mirror Mirror On The Wall, Are Cats Self-Aware After All?

The mirror test has been the de facto gauge of animal self-awareness since it was invented in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr., mostly because no one’s figured out a better way to determine if animals understand who they are.

The procedure is simple: When the animal is asleep or sedated researchers will add a smudge of red paint, a sticker or some other visible mark on the animal’s face. Then they place a mirror nearby.

If the animal wakes up, looks in the mirror and tries to probe or wipe away the new mark, it passes the self-awareness test. It means the animal understands the image in the mirror is a reflection of itself and not another animal, according to researchers.

The list of animals who have passed the self-awareness test is quite short: It includes great apes like orangutans, bonobos and chimpanzees, as well as elephants, dolphins, orcas and crows.

Cats, who are notoriously difficult to work with in controlled studies, have never passed the mirror test. Dubbed “the world’s most uncooperative research subject,” cats are a challenge even for the most seasoned animal cognition experts.

“I can assure you it’s easier to work with fish than cats,” one scientist told Slate magazine. “It’s incredible.”


It’s not clear if cats don’t recognize themselves or simply can’t be bothered. Indeed, one of the primary criticisms of the mirror test is that, like most measures of animal cognition, it employs a human perspective to gauge non-human intelligence. It assumes that animals use vision as their primary source of information, as humans do, and it assumes that animals will be immediately driven to touch or remove an unfamiliar mark.

Buddy has a long and tumultuous history with mirrors. As a tiny kitten he once pulled down a thick, heavy wood-framed mirror from a wall, smashing the glass on impact. Thankfully he avoided injury.

As he got older, Buddy graduated to his boxing phase: He’d stand in front of a mirror, put his weight on his back legs and “box” the Buddy in the mirror with a series of quick jabs. Even from another room I knew instantly when he was boxing his reflection thanks to his high-pitched trills and the THWAP-THWAP-THWAP!! of his little paws against the glass.

The boxing phase eventually gave way to the narcissism phase, when Buddy would park himself in front of the mirror and stare at his reflection, occasionally raising a paw to the glass or waving at himself.

Was this evidence of self-awareness? Did little Bud now realize he was staring at his own reflection? After all, even humans don’t pass the mirror test until they’re two years old, so it’s entirely possible a cat can come to understand what it’s seeing in the mirror just like kids can.

So ripped.

Then one day I was shaving with the bathroom door open when Buddy padded up behind me and meowed to get my attention. Instead of turning to face him, I kept shaving, locked eyes with him in the mirror and gave him a slow-blink of recognition. He blinked back.

Finally, yesterday the roles were reversed: Buddy was sitting in front of the mirror while I was reading a few feet away.

“Hi, Bud!” I said, putting my tablet down.

Buddy, still staring into the mirror, met my gaze and blinked at me. Then in a moment that might have been confusion or dawning comprehension, he turned from the mirror-me to the real me, then turned back to the mirror. He blinked at me again.

Is that evidence of self-awareness? If Buddy still thought that the images in the mirror were different animals, wouldn’t he freak out upon realizing there are now two Big Buddies? Or would he meow with joy at the serendipitous development of a second Big Buddy to do his bidding?

He didn’t do any of those things. He took it in stride and reacted to mirror-me the same way he always reacts to regular me.

Skeptics will say this little anecdote proves nothing. It is, after all, just an anecdote, and it’s a far cry from a well-designed, controlled study with a few dozen feline participants.

That’s all true. But maybe we’re onto something here. Maybe instead of the traditional mirror test, which cats don’t seem to be interested in, a new mirror test could gauge how cats react to their owners as seen in a mirror.

Cats are never satisfied with doing things the “normal” way. Why should the mirror test be any different?

Why Do Cats Ignore Mirrors?

Why Do Cats Ignore Mirrors featured image

K nowing how vain and conceited cats can tend to behave, you’d think that staring in the mirror would consume a large part of their day. But they don’t. Why do cats wind up ignoring themselves in the mirror?

Cats ignore mirrors because the lack of scent emitting from things a cat sees in a reflection can either immediately cause it to lose interest, be confused and fearful, or somewhat aggressive.

If a cat is confused or threatened by what it sees in a mirror, the remedy is simple- ignore it and the threat goes away. If the cat is confused, it will investigate at first but eventually lose interest as it can’t gain any new clues to perk its interest.

A cat might ignore mirrors after its initial introduction to one because regardless of what it can see, it smells like a piece of furniture. Because it smells like a piece of furniture or an otherwise uninteresting object, the cat will treat it like one.

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Cats are Not Visibly Self Aware

cat looking in a circular mirror

Not being visibly self-aware means that the cat will not recognize itself in a reflection. In fact, there are only a few animal species that we know about that are self-aware in this way, and cats aren’t on that list.

If you put a cat in front of a mirror, the cat it can see, as far as the cat is concerned, is not itself. If the cat takes the reflection seriously at all, it will see the cat staring back at it as a potential threat or at least a feline intruder.

Even if you tried to make it painfully obvious, like putting a little outfit on your cat. It will look at the mirror and wonder why the other guy is wearing a humiliating outfit. The neural process to occur that it’s looking at itself isn’t present.

Because of this, we are treated to different initial reactions, which can sometimes be pretty funny. Inevitably though, the cat will lose interest and stop caring about that other guy that stares at it all the time and move on with its life.

Some Cats Attack Mirrors

All cats are different, which explains the variety of reactions we’ll get when it comes to mirrors. Not all cats are curious, nervous, or indifferent when looking in the mirror.

Some can react violently, whapping, growling, or hissing at the mirror, trying to get its paws on the angry cat intruding on its turf. These kinds of responses typically wind up with the cat bolting away from the mirror due to having met its match.

But because of the lack of any real harm done, and it appears to be less and less threatening over time, the cat will leave it alone and allowing bygones to be bygones.

A Window to Another World

cat pawing its reflection

Some cats might appear to be attacking a mirror violently, but not in a way that it’s being aggressive to its reflection. Actions like bashing into it or standing on its hind legs while rapidly pawing or scratching at it aren’t necessarily an attack.

When a cat is doing this, it could be that it’s trying to get into the room it can see on the other side. If you’ve ever had a room that you want to keep the cat out of, you know how adamant they can be about trying to get in.

If the cat considers the room’s reflection to be another unexplored room, it will spend all kinds of time trying to figure out how to get in there. If a cat is stubborn enough, the frame to a mirror may suffer from the cat’s struggle to break in, or eventual scratches can develop in the mirror.

No Scent to Care About

cat ignoring its reflection

Cats rely heavily on their sense of smell. It’s among their greater senses, and in many cases, they’ll trust their nose well before they’ll believe what they’re seeing.

If they see your reflection in a mirror, they’ll not recognize it’s you due to a lack of scent. This can also be displayed when a cat sees someone through a closed window.

Your Cat in a Window

cat looking out of the glass window

Cat’s love sitting in window sills. They get to watch all of the interesting things that go on in the world. But if you were to go outside and approach them while they sit opposite a closed window, you might not get the reaction you’d expect.

The same cat who shows you undying affection in the house might tear away from the window in fear when it sees you on the other side of that window. Or, depending on the nature of the particular cat, it might become super interested, sniffing as hard as it can while rubbing all over the window.

Cats who rely more on their sight would respond more normally than a cat who relies more on their sense of smell. The lack of an expected smell can freak a cat out, leaving it to wonder if the person who’s on the other side of the window is a friend or foe.

A Sharp Drop Off in Interest

cat with green eyes ignoring its reflection

The many different responses and the inevitable lack of interest develops due to the confusion the lack of scent creates. The same lack of scent that might create initial responses will quickly wind up with the cat ignoring the mirror completely.

After the awe, dread, confusion, anger, or curiosity has subsided, the only time a cat might interact with a mirror is if it sees something moving and wants to attempt to grab it. Similar to how they may interact with a television or computer monitor.

Otherwise, as stated above, the mirror becomes just another piece of furniture, no more special than a couch, seat, or bureau. The consistent lack of action on behalf of the mirror will promote a lack of reaction by the cat.

Final Thoughts

cat looking away from its reflection

It’s not that cats always ignore mirrors, but rather that they completely lose interest. This is particularly true with matured cats.

Strange, humorous, and heartwarming things that make up a cat’s behavior are easier to understand when their limitations are understood. Their lack of being self-aware in a visual sense helps to explain a good portion of their interactions with a mirror.

Their impressive sense of smell can also be key to understanding much of their behavior with mirrors, as well as a host of other strange and questionable habits. Throw some good old-fashioned curiosity in the mix and we wind up with a display of short-lived reactions that will be easily forgettable by the cat.

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