Different animal species possess different levels of mirror self-awareness, but your cat is not among them. Your feline definitely reacts when he sees himself in a mirror -- but he doesn’t appear to recognize the image as himself. Still, his reactions to spotting his image are online video-cute.
Each Cat Reacts Differently
Cats of all breeds, from house cats to the big guys, react upon catching their images in a mirror. Some of the big cats -- lions and tigers -- jump back in surprise, if not fear, when they see their reflections. Others gaze fixedly at their reflections, moving from one side to the other. As their doppelgangers move back and forth, they become even more interested. Some big cats vocalize or swipe at the mirror with their outsized paws.
House cats, including yours, also have a response. Where one cat will bat frantically at the “other” cat, a different cat might nose curiously behind the mirror, looking for the mysterious intruder. Still other felines sniff with curiosity, trying to suss out the other feline’s scent. House cats may get so involved in trying to “get” the intruder that they break the mirror.
Chimpanzees Have Mirror Recognition
Several species were studied in a longitudinal study that asked the question about which animals do recognize themselves in a mirror. The veterinary faculty at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands tried to answer this question. The faculty found that chimpanzees recognized themselves in a mirror. Younger animals, aged 8 to 15 years, were more likely to recognize themselves, while chimps older than 15 years of age were less likely to understand that the images in the mirror were their own.
Cats Don’t Have Self Recognition
If you’ve observed your family feline as he walked past a mirror in your house, his reactions were probably pretty funny. From the startled stare to the huge, fluffed tail and defensive posture, your kitty was telling you, “Stand back! I got this bad dude!” Another cat may walk by, see the “other cat” in the mirror and nonchalantly walk by.
From the differing reactions, it’s a safe bet that cats don’t possess mirror self-recognition. In fact, toddlers younger than 18 months of age also fail this test. The members of the animal kingdom who recognize themselves in a mirror include chimpanzees, magpies, ravens, various jays and the Clarks nutcracker. So, too, do elephants, orangutans and dolphins.
Cats Don’t Groom at the Mirror
Older humans and chimpanzees groom themselves in front of a mirror. Rhesus macaques given a dose of Ritalin and fitted with head implants also look at and touch the implant, as well as study their genitalia.
A mirror self-recognition test was devised for several mammals. A mark was painted on the foreheads of anesthetized animals, and when the animals woke up, their reactions to seeing themselves were recorded. Dogs and cats failed to indicate that they saw the mark or that they understood the mark was on their foreheads -- therefore, they failed the self-recognition test. Your kitty won’t spend his time hogging the mirror. He has too many other things to do.
- Neuropsychologia: An 8-Year Longitudinal Study of Mirror Self-Recognition in Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes)
- USDA Forest Service: Corvids
- Mother Nature Network: Watch: Big Cats React to Their Reflections
- Neuroethics & Law Blog: Passing the Mirror Test: Reflections on the Significance of Animal Self-Awareness
- George Doyle & Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Getty Images