Among the millions of cat videos on YouTube, one theme seems to captivate an unusually large audience: cats looking at themselves in the mirror. Between the hissing, growling, and pure confusion that sets in after seeing their reflection, it’s clear that cats see themselves in the mirror. But do they recognize themselves?
Cats don’t recognize themselves in the mirror, a concept proven in the “red dot test” tested in 1970. Research shows that cats assume this reflection is another cat on the other side. This lack of self-awareness is why cats respond with curiosity or aggression upon looking in the mirror.
Self-awareness is one of the hottest topics among scientists researching animal behaviours. Now, do cats have enough self-awareness to see the reflection in the mirror and know that’s them? To find out, read on.
What Is Self-Awareness?
The concept of self-awareness notably differs when talking about human psychology, as compared to animal behaviour.
When we speak about self-aware people, we discuss their ability to understand their actions and feelings and how they may impact others. Animals are a bit of a different story, according to animal ethics researcher David DeGrazia.
His research shows that there are three distinct types of self-awareness in animals:
- Introspective self-awareness: Experience sensations, feelings, beliefs, and desires
- Social self-awareness: Know their role in their physical environment and how to interact with other creatures
- Bodily self-awareness: Acknowledge their movements, physical location, and bodily sensations
The final of the three—bodily self-awareness—is what we’re talking about when discussing an animal’s ability to be “self-aware.” Researchers condense this highly complex topic into one single test in the scientific community: seeing if animals will recognize themselves when they see their reflection in the mirror.
The Mirror Self-Reflection Test and How Cats Responded
The Mirror Self-Reflection Test, also known as the “Red Dot Test,” was first introduced in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup. The primary goal was to figure out if any species in the animal kingdom had noticeable self-awareness.
Translation: Gallup wanted to see if an animal could look at itself in the mirror and know the reflection was of them.
To do this, Gallup placed an unscented red dot on animals’ foreheads as they were sleeping, giving them access to a mirror shortly after awakening. If an animal looked at itself in the mirror and drew attention to the red dot by focusing on or scratching it, that’d be proof that the animal knew the reflection in the mirror was of themselves. As such, “passing” the Mirror Test would be a clear indicator that the species (as a whole) had self-awareness.
Since first using this test back in 1970, several species have recognized themselves while undergoing the Mirror Test, including:
- Bottlenose dolphins
- Killer whales
- Bornean orangutans
- Asian elephants
- Eurasian magpies
Cats – along with dogs and many species of birds—have yet to pass the Mirror Test and display behaviours associated with self-awareness.
Do Cats Have Self-Awareness?
Cats do have some sense of self-awareness, though it doesn’t show in the standard Mirror Test. Instead, you have to look at your cat’s level of self-awareness from a few other perspectives: knowing what her body is capable of and acting upon her desires and feelings.
For example, your cat may:
- Leap from the ground onto a high counter-top (“I know I can jump that high.”)
- Stay out of the way of aggressive neighbourhood cats (“This cat is dangerous; I’ll keep my distance from him.”)
- Call out for you when it’s getting close to dinner time (“I’m hungry and want to eat.”)
All of these actions show that your cat understands how her body works (and how far she can push it), the hierarchy (and where she fits inside of it), and her internal desires (and how to get what she needs from you).
A Possible Explanation
Cats don’t have the best vision. In fact, the average cat has about a tenth of the visual acuity of humans, struggles to see objects more than 20 feet away, and cannot distinguish between certain shades and hues. A cat’s less-than-desirable sense of sight can possibly explain why felines, as a species, struggle to see the red dot on their foreheads in the Mirror Test.
Cats rely more heavily on their sense of smell rather than their poor 20/100 vision. Add that to the fact that—unlike humans—cats don’t have a need to look in the mirror. They simply don’t know what they look like enough to see themselves in the mirror and say, “Hey, that’s me!”
By definition, this could be a reason why cats fail the Mirror Test and lack “self-awareness.”
How Cats React to Seeing Themselves in the Mirror
We know that cats don’t understand that the cat staring back at them in the mirror is them. But they do see something when they look into the mirror: another cat. Cats can easily identify another cat (both visually and via scent). So when your cat sees her own reflection in the mirror, she thinks there’s another cat in the house, behind or inside the mirror.
How your cat reacts to her reflection depends on a few factors:
- Territorial characteristics (“Get out of my house!”)
- A sense of shock or surprise (“Where did she come from?”)
- Past interactions with other cats
Let’s review some of the common responses that cats have upon seeing their reflection.
Cats who are territorial of their home may see their reflection as another cat encroaching on their space. A territorial or protective cat might respond by growling, hissing, swatting at the mirror, or puffing out her tail. When she does this, the cat in the mirror responds the same, which may lead her to believe the cat in the mirror is angry or aggressive too.
Therefore, it’s not unusual for cats to entirely avoid the mirror in the future due to this negative experience.
A well-tempered cat may see her reflection in the mirror and want to learn more about the cat looking back at them. She may gently reach out to touch the mirror (what she thinks is another cat) or attempt to sniff this unlikely friend. Upon realizing that there’s a physical barrier between herself and this mysterious cat, she may even try to get around to the other side of the mirror to greet her face-to-face.
Here’s a video of a cat who’s so curious about what she sees in the mirror that it appears she may realize the cat staring back at her is…her. Watch as she seemingly “discovers” her ears for the first time:
To say that cats tend to be aloof would be a massive understatement. With this lackadaisical attitude, it’s possible that your cat may take a quick glance at the mirror and then immediately walk away without a response. Your cat may already have a decent understanding of how mirrors work (in the sense that there is no cat on the other side) or doesn’t care enough to investigate this seeming intruder.
Cats may not recognize themselves in the mirror the way humans and other species do. But that doesn’t mean that cats don’t have any sense of self-awareness whatsoever. Your cat has a pretty clear understanding of what her body is capable of, what she’s feeling (anger, hunger, affection), and where she ranks in your household’s hierarchy.
With that in mind, don’t put too much weight in your cat’s ability to identify her reflection. However, you may want to cover mirrors or keep her away from them if she’s known to get flustered, aggressive, or even attack the mirror.
- Wikipedia: Self-Awareness
- David DeGrazia: Self-awareness in animals
- Wikipedia: Gordon Gallup
- PAWS Chicago: How Felines Perceive the World
- Popular Science: This Cat Did Not Figure Out How Mirrors Work
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.