Cats can use mirrors.


Conventional wisdom goes that since, when given the classic and highly species-biased “mirror test”, cats “flunk” it, then they don’t know that their reflection is themselves, and don’t in fact know that mirrors reflect things and that they can see behind themselves using mirrors and so forth.

AnneC and I are trying to debunk a lot of similar myths about cats. The tests cats are given are often not cat-friendly and don’t reflect cats in their usual environment doing their usual things. And I’ve long known that Fey uses mirrors. In fact sometimes she uses two mirrors at once — the one over the sink and the one on the bathroom door — to make direct eye contact with people. More than one staff person who thought cats couldn’t use mirrors, have been startled, some even terrified, to see a cat looking them straight in the face using a mirror or two. One even screamed and dropped what she was carrying and just kept repeating, “Your cat looked at me in the mirror. Cats can’t use mirrors.”

Here’s a photo of her using one mirror to look at me as she hears me come up behind her with a camera:


As to why that scares people? I think it’s the same phenomenon that has terrified many people about me. They see me going about my business and stereotype me as not being what they consider a real person. Then I do anything from looking at them to typing something and they visibly startle and begin to act scared. They respond to me as if a potted plant got up and walked around. And I see people doing the same to Fey all the time.

And why that is… I’m not entirely sure. I almost expect them to cross themselves like we are demon possessed. They think of us as something unnatural, something deeply wrong that just shouldn’t happen that way. And there’s something deeply wrong with that in a whole different way than what they think of us.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

32 responses »

  1. Dennis looks at us in the mirror too. It’s kinda cool….

    WE should be the ones “crossing ourselves” (literally or in a metaphoric sense…..if one is not religiously inclined/religious but not Christian) when we come across such narrow minded individuals as you mention in your post, Amanda……THEY are the ones possessed…….with discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping….etc.

    • I’m a Biology student and after seeing the results of the magpie mirror test I’ve decided to try a version of it on my tom cat. He doesn’t use mirrors to look at people, and he actually avoids looking at them. But then, he’s an indoor-outdoor cat, with all the social upbringing that interacting with other cats in an urban environment entices.

      But he tolerates me putting a mirror in front of him (there’s one at my desk where he likes to lie down), so I gently patted his head and left a small post-it there, way up where he couldn’t see it. A few moments later, after I was sure he didn’t know it was there (he didn’t react to it), I put the mirror up to him and asked him to look at it.

      He looked up at it, instantly lept off the desk and began shaking his head (NOT the one reflected, his own), pawing it to get the post-it off. So he obviously knows that the image in the mirror is his reflection, and he knows that if something is attached to him in the mirror, it’s attached to himself, which is a clear sign of self-awareness.

      The more interesting about that is that when he was a kitten, 11 years ago, I picked him up and introduced him to the mirror. At first he hissed, but then I told him it was him, I pointed to my image, to myself, to his image, to him, and then made him put his paw on his reflection on the mirror, just like we humans instinctively do with babies to teach them about mirrors.

      I believe, from those experiences, that cat understanding about their reflection on mirrors is learned, just as ours and other animal’s is, and the only thing that makes them seem not to understand it as easily as we do is that cats have a different approach to their image that we humans and other animals that actually enjoy interacting with their own reflection, like pigs and apes, do.

      And that that difference in approach isn’t instinctive, but part of a set of social norms and practices that vary between indoor-only cats and outdoor cats, and also depend on how much human-cat interaction the cat receives from its owners.

      I’ll be repeating the experiment after long enough has passed that he gets used to not being “tricked” like that again, and will film it this time, so I can have a permanent record.

      If you want to try that experiment with your cat, and register it, I’d love to know about it. Just please don’t forget to add if your cat is indoor-only, indoor-outdoor or outdoor-only, if it has any contact with outdoor cats (as is the case with my female cat, who’s indoor only but lives with my male, who goes outside), if it has been taught to recognize the reflection as himself or has figured out itself/never been exposed to a mirror before.

  2. Oh, and we are pretty sure Dennis knows that his reflection is just that and not another cat, because he doesn’t hiss and spit at it like he would an unfamiliar feline, on first sight.

    Yeah, that has been the case with all the cats we’ve had, as well. Some cats will try to play-fight with their own reflection, and we’ve seen people use this as evidence that supposedly “they think it’s another cat, they don’t realize it’s them”– but their reactions to physical other cats have been completely and totally different.

    Our youngest cat likes play-fighting with her own reflection, but we’re positive at this point that it is exactly that– playing. She only does it in full-length mirrors, for one thing, although there are others in the house. She also likes to get up on the bathroom counter to watch us when we brush our teeth, and doesn’t seem to care one way or another about her reflection then, although she obviously notices it.

  3. People startle so easily when awakened, don’t they? And the ones who wake people up don’t usually fare well. They are usually persecuted in some way–or worshipped first, and then persecuted later.

    Being possessed by ignorance is the fate of all people, to one degree or another, I think; after all, no one understands more than a fraction of all there is to know. But being possesed by ignorance and not knowing or caring, or being so possessed that you simply dismiss the evidence of your own eyes and say completely illogical things like “Your cat just looked at me in the mirror. Cats can’t use mirrors” is really a deeply entrenched and dangerous form of illusion. It extends to people who consider themselves healers, like the person I went to last week who told me I’m not autistic when I assured her that I am. (?????) And we’re the ones with the problem?

  4. Rachel……..

    “And we’re the ones with the problem?”

    Hear, hear!!!!!

    To the Amorpha Household…..ah, felines…..most fascinating, aren’t they? I sometimes think they are more advanced in some ways than we humans are…..

    Andrea the “hic” Integral…….”hic” I think I just celebrated finishing the garage painting job a little “hic” too enthusiastically “hic”

  5. Interesting! Have you ever tried putting a new collar on her, maybe, and watching her to see if she notices it when she sees it in the mirror? My two cats don’t know what mirrors are; they totally ignore them. Windows, on the other hand, fascinate them.

  6. In the early 80s I lived in an L-shaped apartment with Snagglepuss, the grey tabby stubby-Manx who came to live with me my senior year of college a few years before. On the first warm day in that then-new apartment, I opened the windows in the kitchen and the bathroom (on both edges of the L), and Snaggy promptly settled into the sunlight coming into the bathroom window. I went over to the kitchen window, raised the screen, stuck my head out where he could see me, and called to him. He got up out of the window, came around the bend in the hall between the bathroom and the kitchen, saw the rest of me standing *inside* the kitchen, then ran back into the bathroom to have another look through the bathroom window. It was fascinating to watch him put 2 and 2 together and realize that the exterior and the interior of the kitchen window were views of the same window, and that the kitchen was located in space behind the brick wall containing that window.

    I’m curious as to how the tests that (erroneously) support claims that cats don’t correctly process images in mirrors are constructed, that is, where the species-bias and confounds arise.

  7. The bias is basically… The test goes that you stick something on the front of the cat and show the cat a mirror and see if the cat tries to remove what was stuck on them. When I’ve never seen a cat operate in a way where that would matter.

  8. And I think the collar test would work even less than the standard mirror test. She hasn’t shown any great interest in whether her collar looks one way or the other, and she’s perfectly capable of noticing a collar change without a mirror.

  9. I am sick of being looked at as though I am “something unnatural, something deeply wrong”, and it hasn’t even happened to me as much as it seems to happen to others (including some autistic people).

    In another (non-autism specific) online community I am part of, someone said something about autistics not having a conscience, and connected that to ‘being sick’. This devastates me, and I don’t know how to respond to the person, as I don’t want to create friction within the rest of the community.

    BTW, cats using mirrors to make eye contact sort of seems…autistic-like? Not sure if that is the right way to characterize it or not, as the cats themselves are the only ones who really know why they do what they do, but in my experience, making eye contact indirectly rather than directly can be a bit less intimidating (not necessarily that the cats are feeling intimidated…). Kinda like looking at parts of someone’s face, but not their eyes, but doing so in a way that lets them know you are ‘tuned in’ and know what they are doing/saying…

  10. Littlewolf,

    Perhaps I’m not the best person to offer suggestions on how to respond to the notion that autistics don’t have a conscience (I’m kind of a blunt, friction-causing autie), but I remember once hearing an African-American speaker say that whenever white folks like me hear racism, we need to interrupt it and not give it a place to rest. Saying that autistics don’t have a conscience is basically saying that we’re not human, in the same way that racists say that people with dark skin are not human, and it needs to be met, if only with a few words to the effect that (speaking of having a conscience), implying we’re not human is unconscionable. Or you could just speak to your own personal reaction (again, my blunt autie-ness is showing) and say that such a statement makes you sick.

    Of course, I could write a profanity-laced diatribe for you to post, but I know that’s not what you’re looking for. ;-)

  11. We have a cat that watched television when she was younger. I remember my mother telling me that cats weren’t supposed to be able to see images in the television, but she would sit down and stare straight at it. I don’t think she was smart enough to do that imitating us (on the other hand, our other cat was imitating people and trying to figure things out all the time, even though some of the things didn’t work for cats like they did for humans), so I’m going to have to say that she could at least see something. I would accept that the vision is distorted somehow, but she could watch TV, at least when she was younger. I don’t know why she stopped.

    I definitely think this is something that people don’t understand as well as they think they do. Which happens to things concerning those other than cats, as you’ve mentioned.

  12. Amanda, I agree that the cat-mirror test makes no sense. Why would a cat care that something is stuck on him/her unless he/she were uncomfortable? I’ve seen cats with stuff stuck on them who didn’t seem to care at all. And if the cat were uncomfortable, he/she wouldn’t need to look in the mirror to see that the thing was there. Argh.

    Who comes up with this nonsense? The next thing you know, they’ll devise this test where one person puts a marble in a box, and another person moves it, and they ask an autistic person where the marble is in order to determine whether the autistic person understands that other people think differently from him/her, and…oops, I guess they already thought that one up, and it involves a similar kind of sensory/cognitive bias as the cat-mirror test, and like the cat-mirror test, it reveals far more about the tester than the subject. Fascinating.

  13. Thanks, Rachel. :)

    What I did was start signing off my posts with phrases that let people know that I am autistic (e.g. “*proud* autistic”). That will hopefully remind them to be more careful with their words. I also posted a reply to a different thread, relating another poster’s experiences with (disability-based) discrimination to mine as an autistic person. Not that they are the exact same, of course, but just to try to get people to extend their thinking to include autism as well.

    I really don’t know if that’s useful or not. I mean, you’re right about needing to interrupt prejudice, and me being indirect about it is probably just a cop-out, but I’m just so afraid to create a disturbance. This community is one where, prior to this, I had felt safe as everyone there is dealing with cognitive/mental disability-based discrimination. Bleah. This whole situation is just crummy.

  14. Littlewolf, I don’t think what you’re doing is a cop-out at all. I don’t think it matters what you say or how you say it. It matters *that* you say something. And you have! And you say it each time you sign a post, which is very powerful.

  15. I was about to say that it’s not so odd because when you look into a mirror it’s the same as looking at the person image-wise. But given cats’ good directional hearing(?), they could defintely work out that they’re looking at an image. And since I’ve never seen a cat seem confused about which was the image and which was me, it does seem that they know.

    I don’t know why I find it amusing that someone could be shocked by that. — “This summer, at a theater near you…. ‘It’s watching you right now, but not the way you think. It’s the Cat Who Could Use a Mirror! (dun dun duuun).'”

    It reminds a bit of seeing someone be surprised that a person with really rough english could be a professor (was a prof. in another country). Seems like assumptions come in packages: if you don’t do X, then it assumed you don’t do Y,Z,A,B,C either. Or if you don’t do your gender role ‘correctly’ in some small way, you must then also be untrustworthy, lazy, not useful in emergencies, etc.

  16. Thanks again, Rachel. Your kind reassurance has helped.

    Coincidentally, I saw a quotation from Dr. MLK today: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”. If I just take one step at a time, hopefully it will eventually be easier to keep breaking the silence around autism/disability rights.

  17. Indeed, most ‘tests’ about animal cognition are set up without taking a moment to wonder if the animal in question would care about that.

    The classic example is the ‘do cats see colour’ tests, which involved cats being trained to choose something based on its colour for a food reward. Cats didn’t learn this skill. People figured they couldn’t until some ‘genius’ of a cat did. (We are pretty certain now that cats see all the colours we do, except red) Monkeys, subjected to a similar test, learned to do it immediately. (We’re pretty certain that monkeys actually see the same range of colours as cats.)

    In a test where the animal must react differently to different sounds and monkeys flunk and cats ace it. This doesn’t mean that monkeys are tone deaf any more than the colour test means that cats see no colours. It just means that fruit doesn’t make a noise so monkey brains don’t easily associate sounds with food rewards. Likewise, cats don’t care what colour the small animals they eat are, but they find them by listening, so cat brains are wired to easily associate sounds with food.

    It would be interesting to know how easy it is for monkeys and cats to learn to be frightened by sounds and colours, but that would involve devising tests that terrorize animals, so I’ll opt for ignorance.

    I had a cat who not only watched television, but would deliberately walk across the remote control whenever siren sounds came on. She was obviously annoyed by siren sounds (irritated ear flick!) and had figured out that she could turn it off/mute it/change the channel some of the time if she stepped on the remote.

  18. That thing about the remote reminds me of something Fey used to do. She figured out that if she hit a certain button on the phone (the one that paged the cordless phone), loud beeping would ensue and I would get up to turn it off, and that once I was up I would more likely get her whatever she wanted.

    In fact she discovered and continues to use just about every imaginable way to trigger me into motion, whether it’s by knocking the phone off the hook or rapidly nudging several of my body parts in sequence. This is because I get stuck, and once unstuck I am more likely to give her food, water, play, or whatever else she wants.

  19. I use an answering machine because it’s so much easier to get up and answer the phone when I know not only who’s calling but what it’s about. People who call me know this, and will often leave extra long messages to give me time to figure stuff out and then get into action and pick up the phone.

    My cats (including the one who seems to be the least clever) have figured out that they can walk across that machine and very very easily play the old messages, and I will get up to stop it most of the time. With the same advantages Fey gets from getting you to get up.

  20. Ha……clever kitty. It’s operant conditioning or something……but in this case, she is conditioning herself…’re not telling her to do that stuff…(not directly anyway)

    We humans are certainly not the only thinking species by any means……and there are probably (nay, definitely!) many animals of many different species who are much more intelligent than many humans…

    [edited out unnecessary remark]

    Our Dennis has so far been successful in getting food, water, play, etc…..merely by persistent meowing and walking towards the basement and checking to make sure we’re following him. Then he walks to the room where food, water, and litter are…..all the while making sure we’re close behind him. He can do this because we don’t often have inertia issues of getting stuck…..and when we do he can get us unstuck simply by nonstop meowing…..and sometimes nibbling or pawing.

    He even has a certain “look” he does when the litter box is too dirty for his liking. Fortunately he’s not one who wants it cleaned every time it’s used… he is allowed out, so he does his business elsewhere if it’s not pouring rain.

  21. When my kittens (now 9 months old) were tiny they all briefly experimented with batting at their reflections, etc. But they figured out very quickly that it was not a real cat in the mirror, and I’ve seen all of them use mirrors and reflections in windows, etc., to see what is going on behind them. I was actually sort of weirded out to learn that anyone seriously thought cats were incapable of using mirrors in this way!

  22. about the cat-test: wouldn’t cats remove the thing stuck on them based on feel, before even bothering with the mirror?!

    and about a different-looking collar, i think cats are not so much into fashion?
    i wonder what is cat aesthetics? in what way do they have an idea of beauty?

  23. n.: I would not presume to suggest that no cat has aesthetic tastes; my guess is that at least some probably do, but (a) these tastes vary between individual cats, and (b) cat aesthetics are not much like human aesthetics. Cat aesthetics would of course be based on feline sensory systems, interests, and priorities. I have noticed my cats have preferences for certain toys over others, for instance, so I would guess some just look more interesting than others. And female cats definitely have preferences as far as the tomcats they like best, and since this can vary a lot between individuals as well I bet there is some component of attractiveness-finding that goes beyond just “reproductive fitness”. But of course that is all speculation, my main point just being that I do not see any reason to presume cats do NOT have aesthetic appreciation, they just likely don’t care too much about the pattern on their collar, etc., because it simply is not very interesting to them.

  24. One of my cats enjoys wearing a collar and looks quite smug about it when I put one on her. I don’t leave it on because she’s an athletic little beast and I fear she might get it caught on stuff, but sometimes I put it on her for the evening just to make her happy.

    My dog (he died years ago) had a distaste for red (a colour that dogs don’t see, so red objects would probably have looked muddy yellow to him) and a great fondness for blue. If you put a red bandanna-scarf ’round his neck, he would take it off and bury it. If you put a blue one on, he would run ’round to everybody and do a ‘look at me!’ wiggle. If it fell off, he’d carry it until somebody put it back on (or something else exciting happened and he forgot.)

  25. Some might argue that cats do not recognize the visual imagery in the mirror and are simply looking at object patterns. But then that wouldn’t explain the fact they make eye contact with their humans using the mirror. And my cat, Sunny, often talks at me towards the mirror too.

    Others might argue they have object recognition but they don’t realize it isn’t another human or another cat. But then they don’t attack the cat in the mirror like they would if one walked into their home. This suggests they may recognize the cat in the mirror as self. And they also frequently make eye contact with their humans through the mirror like Amanda mentioned, and mine sometimes talks to me via the mirror as well.

    Even still, others may say that they have recognition but still don’t understand the concept of “reflection”. But I myself have never seen a cat try to walk THROUGH a mirror, implying they know it’s a hard surface and not another room.

    I’m not certain they know it’s definitely their own reflection, but being familiar with my own cats’ behaviors it certainly seems like it.

  26. I was interested a couple of years ago to see some strange interpretations of the mirror test as used on bears. From the way they were reacting (frequently smacking at the reflection, and losing interest), I just figured the bears in question weren’t that interested in staring into mirrors, but it looked to me like they recognized their own reflections as such. You can probably imagine the kinds of weird, anthropocentric interpretations put on it by human “experts” who didn’t know bear body language. Not surprisingly, the (autistic) “crazy bear guy” who did the tests in the first place had closer to my take on applying human standards to bears. Grafton made some excellent comments about this kind of thing, so I won’t repeat it. :)

    I’ve lived with cats who seemed to enjoy mirrors, and would also make eye contact with me that way. Oddly, my grandmother started into how it’s bad luck for a cat to look into a mirror when she saw me holding one there. I have no idea what that reaction was about.

    They think of us as something unnatural, something deeply wrong that just shouldn’t happen that way. And there’s something deeply wrong with that in a whole different way than what they think of us.

    Well said.

  27. Cats using mirrors, this should be a trope in J-Horror films, why isn’t it? I know, perhaps because unlike American horror film writers, Japanese horror film writers feel that bad things happening to cats isn’t good horror. At least based on the J-Horror films I’ve seen and know of.

  28. She’s definitely using the mirror to look at the camera. I wonder if she has figured out what a camera is, too?

    My cats have never shown any interest in mirrors. Neither one of them sees a mirror as anything more than a cold, hard pane of glass with meaningless shapes floating in it. Things in mirrors don’t have smell or taste; they can’t be batted around, chewed, licked, sniffed, or whacked with one’s paw. That makes them irrelevant to my cats.

    I still have pretty much the same reservations about the mirror test that you have, though. Cats’ sensory environment is different. Humans are so hugely visual–something that doesn’t have a smell or a taste or even a texture still has meaning to us. I’m even more visual than average–I learned to read about the same time as I learned to talk, because this primarily visual printed language made much more sense to me than fleeting sounds. But my cats aren’t really that way. They see things, sure; but they see things in terms of whether they’re new or interesting. The shapes in the mirror are neither new nor interesting; the shapes out the window are both new and interesting, though equally unreachable.

    That they ignore the mirror may not be such an indication of lack of an idea of “self” as many professionals think. If they ignore the mirror, because they can’t interact with it; but don’t ignore things out the window, which they also can’t interact with, doesn’t that mean that they understand that the mirror things are just copies of the things that already exist in the world around them–just meaningless reflections? If they didn’t know that the cat in the mirror was themselves, why would they hiss at a cat out the window, but ignore their own reflections?

    The mirror test is interesting, especially as a way to see how an animal reasons; but I don’t think you can use it to test whether an animal has self-awareness. Animals just think too differently from us, and too differently from each other, to use that as some kind of global litmus test. It’s just not valid.

  29. Interesting!

    I definitely agree with the idea that the mirror test is hugely specieist – but I’ve heard of some people who say that “cats don’t have emotions, you’re just anthropomorphizing them”. Okay, so when Imber gives the particular desperate-sounding call that I’ve learned means, “Mommy-Cat! Where *are* you?!”, and I say something (which leads her to me) or come over to her, and she starts purring and rubbing up against me… she’s not relieved? Huh, could’ve fooled me!

    As for cats and ASDers… There’s a wonderful (picture) book out there called _All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome_ by Kathy Hoopmann. It’s an *excellent*, clear description of what Asperger’s (and essentially ASD) is, by comparing our behaviour and reactions to those of cats, with wonderful (and heartwarming, and often humourous) pictures of cats in various situations. It seems an excellent tool to introduce the concept to people, whether children old enough to understand or adults, and everyone I’ve shown it to has enjoyed it greatly.

    As for TVs… we used to have two cats that were fascinated by our TV. One of them liked to watch her reflection in it when it was off (she could spend hours staring at it), and wandered away when it got turned on; the other was fascinated by the short-lived YTV “butterfly” commercials (back in the mid 90s), and used to walk around to the back of the TV to see where the butterflies had gone to.

    :) tagAught

  30. I put a sticker on my cats head I can do it over and over even when he don’t realize it .. but when I put him in front of the mirror he sees it on him and will remove it with the mirror Everytime….he can have the sticker on for 30mins and as soon as he sees himself in the mirror he realizes it’s there and takes it off so the mirror thing is bs period

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