Self-awareness is a strange evolutionary development. Most animals recognize pain, fear, kinship, and other feelings, but knowing themselves is a different issue. Cats tend to do a whole lot of mysterious things that show personality and even love, but are they genuinely self-aware as we define it? The question fascinated me, so I went in search of answers. The things I learned about animal awareness were not quite what I expected. It turns out there’s more to the subject than you might expect.
Do cats recognize themselves in mirrors? Typically, cats do not recognize themselves in mirrors. Your kitty freaks out over a reflection because they think it’s an intruder. They don’t understand that this is just an image of them.
What Does My Cat See in a Mirror
When kittens look in a mirror for the first time, their usual reaction is to try and play with that other cat. However, the mystery in their reflection doesn’t last very long for most young cats because it’s only fun for a little while to watch a mimic.
Many cats and some kittens get defensive instead of playful. They see another animal encroaching on their space and want to warn it away. Hence felines often ‘freak out’ and hiss. Sometimes their fur stands on end, and they may even growl or spit at the intruder.
Some cats will try and get around to the other side of the mirror to reach the kitty they see. This is normal because they don’t recognize themself even though they likely understand that this thing is a cat. Basically, they see a problem or a friend, but not a ‘self’ image.
Scientists theorize that this is because the mirror lacks a distinct scent that the cat associates with itself. Using other senses to determine what the eyes are saying means the kitty in question doesn’t know who they’re looking at because the data is incomplete for them. Just as you might not recognize a picture of yourself in heavy makeup because the image isn’t what you are used to identifying with yourself.
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Cats Don’t Recognize Themselves in Mirrors, but Some Animals Can
When we think our cat is admiring themself in the mirror, is it just a projection of how we feel about them? Probably. Anthropomorphizing, or imbuing animals with human traits is a common practice, and that goes double for pet owners. However, our furry companions are not people. Their brains work differently.
This doesn’t mean we’re totally alone in our self-awareness. A small handful of other creatures pass the basic test we set to see if they recognize what they see in a mirror.
Developed by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970, the Mirror Test is straightforward. A spot of paint on the forehead can tell us everything we need to know about whether a creature sees themself, or just ‘someone’ when they look in the mirror.
Anything that tries to interact with a spot they don’t usually have on their face is seeing that the image is themself. Intriguingly, most children under the age of three or four also fail this test. That means self-awareness is developed over time. Perhaps our cats could learn the trait, but it’s not something nature gives them.
Animals Who Recognize Themselves in a Mirror
While your housecat may not know who’s in the mirror, but some smart animals certainly do. The test to see if an animal, like a cat or dog, can distinguish a difference in themself is a decent marker for what they recognize in themselves visually. The following is a short list of creatures who pass the mirror test.
- Asian Elephants
- Great Apes
- Bottlenose Dolphins
- Eurasian Magpies
- House Cats (rarely, but read on to learn about one special kitty who might be self-aware)
- Manta Rays (maybe)
- Orca Whales
It’s hard to determine what makes one creature recognize itself and others show no signs. Passing this test isn’t definitive proof of self-recognition, nor is failing it proof that your cat doesn’t know itself. However, it’s a pretty good indication.
Elephants have enormous brains, much larger than the average housecat’s body at 11-13 pounds. They show signs of complex social structures and thoughts. It’s noteworthy that while these are the same species that can paint pictures of elephants, not all of the Asian Elephants passed the mirror test. Most likely, that’s because of some of the quirks of elephant behavior.
The bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans have all passed the mirror test, but that’s not surprising. Great apes, like elephants and humans, are among the brightest creatures on Earth. Some species are even learning to use tools.
For dolphins, who don’t have hands or trunks to rub at a mark, the process is slightly different. These lively and smart whales (yes, dolphins are technically whales) are always interested in mirrors, but they show additional interest in markings on themselves, which qualifies as a pass.
Orcas are also very bright ocean creatures who display recognition of an unusual mark on themselves similar to the way Bottlenose Dolphins did when studied. They revealed an expectation of seeing an altered image after they knew they’d been marked.
Until these smart birds passed the mirror test, scientists believed that all self-awareness came from the neocortex. However, as non-mammals, birds don’t have that part of the brain, yet they still identified themselves in reflections.
I know you may be thinking that surely, if ants are self-aware, your cat is smarter and more capable of recognizing itself in the mirror, but cognition is a mystery. By far, the most surprising entry on this list, some species of ants seem to identify themselves. More importantly, when marked, they tried to remove the marks because failing to do so causes other ants from their colony to react with hostility.
Manta Rays (Maybe)
Captive Manta Rays have responded by doing things similar to making faces at themselves in mirrors. They blow bubbles and do other things that aren’t normal social interactions. Unfortunately, the rays haven’t yet had the classic mirror test, so it’s hard to tell.
Cats don’t react to mirrors in any of the standard self-aware styles of behavior. They don’t make faces or test to see if the image is mirroring their actions. Vitally, they also don’t recognize unexpected changes like a dot on their fuzzy faces. Felines are incredibly big on grooming, and they’d almost certainly want to get rid of any unexpected spots on their fur. However, the Mirror Test isn’t perfect.
Are You Sure My Cat Doesn’t Recognize Itself in the Mirror
Well, no, actually. There’s no way to be a hundred percent sure what your pet is thinking (yet), so it’s possible a cat could understand what they see in a mirror. For one thing, the mirror test is not definitive proof of self-awareness; it’s a strong indication. Indeed, no other explanation makes any real sense.
The trouble with science is that it’s all theories and evidence, but there’s always an exception. There is plenty of evidence that cats don’t know what a mirror is showing them. Then again, there’s some proof that individual cats might have figured it out. Mimo, the cat, is one such case. This curious kitty appears to have discovered his ears and checks at least twice to make sure that what he’s seeing is his face. While Mimo does show some sense of alarm at first, and perhaps confusion, he doesn’t try to attack, run, play, or find the other cat.
One example is not conclusive evidence, and using Mimo as an example only shows that it’s possible for some cats to pass a mirror test. This doesn’t mean that the average house kitty is thinking the same thing.
Some Cats Don’t Care About Mirrors & Other Mitigating Factors
Some cats may understand precisely what they’re looking at in the mirror and not care about it. Meanwhile, others could care less about what a mirror shows them. Lack of interest in these things doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of them, only that they aren’t going to do anything about it.
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Another good reason why certain felines may fail the test is their other senses. If you, like your pet, primarily relied on what you smell, or hear for example, then a mirror image doesn’t signify the same thing to you since it neither makes a sound nor does it have the right scent. You, or a cat, could falsely conclude that the lack of these essential elements means it’s not an accurate representation.
Cats have an incredible sense of hearing that picks up both higher and lower ranges than either humans or dogs. As a result, they may use the sounds of a heartbeat or something else to decide what things are based on that or a different sense.
Cats probably don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. Most of them show substantial evidence of not realizing what they see through aggression, play, or attempts to locate the strange kitty. However, that’s not the same as proving a kitty can’t self identify in a mirror.
The example I gave of the cat called Mimo is not typical. Perhaps that cat is unusually bright or self-aware. Then again, maybe he’s a weird cat with uncommon defensive or playful reactions. It’s tough to tell. Until someone invents a direct thought translator, we may never know for sure.
Don’t lose heart. Your feline friend is still special. They are capable of love and devotion, and whether or not they have a sense of self has no bearing on who they are. Perhaps they just see things a little differently.