What Do Cats See When They See Their Reflection?

by Madeline Masters, Demand Media
    These cats don't seem worried that the cats in the mirror will steal their food.

    These cats don't seem worried that the cats in the mirror will steal their food.

    What Kitty does when she gazes into the mirror gives clues to what goes on in her mind. Some cats initially see their reflection as a potential playmate, while others ignore it. Kitty's reaction offers hints about what she sees when she stares at her own pretty face.

    Kitten Play

    The first time a kitten sees herself in the mirror, she may try momentarily to play with the "other" kitten, but she'll quickly lose interest. At this point the kitten knows the reflection isn't another kitten, but she has no reason to believe it's her own image, either. Often, kittens who try to play with their reflections grow into adult cats who look into the mirror with little or no reaction.
    Scientists believe cats don't interpret a reflection as a real cat because the reflection has no smell. University of Colorado biologist Marc Bekoff conducted experiments with his dog that showed the dog used scent rather than appearance as a means of self-recognition, which may explain why neither dogs nor cats react much to their own reflections.

    The Self-Grooming Test

    Scientists have used a self-grooming test as one way to determine whether an animal is self-aware. Gordon Gallup, a psychologist from the State University of New York at Albany, conducted what's called the "mirror test" with chimpanzees. The hypothesis of the experiment was that if an animal looks in the mirror, sees a flaw such as a blotch of color on the reflection he sees, and touches his own face in an attempt to fix the flaw, this is evidence that the animal knows he's viewing his own reflection and that he can manipulate how he looks to others.
    You can try this experiment with your kitty. First, put a sticker on your cat's forehead while she's sleeping. When she awakens, put her in front of a mirror so she can see herself reflected in it. If your cat were to paw at her own face in response to what she sees in the mirror, this might be evidence that your kitty realizes she's viewing a reflection of herself. That's not what cats do, though.

    The Mirror Test Doesn't always Apply

    The mirror test seems to prove animals of some species are self-aware, but it can't be used to prove other animals are not. Researchers have conducted the mirror test with children living in cultures isolated from Western ways, and found they failed to recognize themselves in the mirror. This didn't indicate that the children weren't self-aware, only that they weren't familiar with mirrors.
    The same can be true for other species. Animals can look in a mirror, see an image, and know it's not another real animal; but the image itself may mean little more to them than a painting or photograph would.

    What Her Reflection Means to Your Cat

    Some species seem to clearly recognize what they see in the mirror as themselves, and to care about what they see. Dolphins, elephants and chimpanzees are among those species. Experiments like those of Gallup and Bekoff show that chimpanzees are concerned with their own appearance in the mirror, and use the mirror to examine themselves carefully. So do elephants and dolphins. Clearly, cats and dogs don't. This difference may be related to how important vision is to the particular species' survival. Primates rely heavily on vision, but for dogs and cats, smell takes precedence.
    Disinterest in her reflection isn't necessarily a sign that your cat is not self-aware. Your cat may or may not know the truth of what her reflection is, but if she does, she just might not care.

    About the Author

    Madeline Masters works as a dog walker and professional writer. In the past she has worked as a fitness columnist, fundraising copywriter and news reporter. Masters won two Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Awards in 2009. She graduated from Elizabethtown College with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

    Photo Credits

    • George Pickow/Valueline/Getty Images