Do Cats Recognize Themselves In The Mirror?

comments-icon Fact checked by  Mallory Crusta
Share Email Pinterest Linkedin Twitter Facebook

bengal kitten looking into the mirror

Have you ever noticed what happens when your cat walks in front of a mirror? Do they walk straight past without glancing at their reflection? Does the reflection catch their eye suddenly and make them jump?

Quick Overview

01

Cats don’t recognize themselves in a mirror.

02

Other senses like smell and hearing contribute to a cat’s understanding of their surroundings.

03

Your cat’s reaction to their reflection could give you an idea of whether they are feeling stressed, vulnerable, playful, or unwell.

Or perhaps, you’ve caught your cat attacking their reflection in the mirror? No matter their behavior towards the mirror, they don’t behave the way humans do! So, do cats recognize their reflection in the mirror? Do they have self-awareness? Let’s find out.

Also Read: 10 Fascinating Cat Brain Facts

Do Cats Have Self-Awareness?

British gray cat looking at herself in the mirror

This cat appears to be gazing thoughtfully at their own reflection, but what do cats really experience when they see themselves in the mirror?

Cats have never demonstrated any behavior that suggests a sense of self, as explained here. It might be hard to imagine, but cats don’t recognize themselves when they see their reflection.

In fact, very few animals do. Studies by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr have suggested that only humans, and a few sophisticated animals like orangutans, chimpanzees, orcas, dolphins, and elephants, recognize themselves in a mirror.

This has been tested using the mirror test or mark test, where a red dot is drawn somewhere on the animal’s body. If the animal searches for the dot on their body because they can see it in the mirror, this means they have passed the mirror test. Humans aren’t born with mirror self-recognition though, they will recognize themselves for the first time at around two years old.

A lack of self-awareness will be partially responsible for your cat not recognizing themselves in the mirror, as well as the fact that their markings will be reversed, but that’s not the whole story. Cats are very sensitive to noise and smell, and they’re usually acutely aware of everyone else in the room.

It’s pretty tricky, therefore, to surprise your cat by creeping up on them (unless they’re sleeping, of course). Even when they’re relaxing, cats remain half-aware of what’s going on around them, so that they can react to any sudden attacks from other animals.

You can find out more about this in our blog posts ‘why do cats sleep with their heads up?’ and ‘why does my cat sleep on me?’.

Therefore, if the cat from the mirror was actually in the room, your cat would be aware of them through their other senses. For the same reason, the cat won’t recognize the cat in the mirror as them because it doesn’t carry their scent.

Also Read: Understanding Your Cat’s Five Senses

How Do Cats Behave When They See Their Reflection In The Mirror?

Cats display a wide range of reactions when they spot themselves in the mirror. Let’s try to understand the reasons behind some common reactions:

1. They Play

The cat looks at itself in a wooden-framed desk mirror.

Perhaps this cat looks into the mirror and sees a playmate.

If your cat approaches the mirror reflection and tries to give some playful bops with their paws, it might be that they’re craving playtime and would love more interaction with you. Why not grab one or two of their toys and spend some time having fun together?

If your cat seems bored and is looking for fun despite lots of attention from you, or if you can’t spare any extra time to play with them, consider getting a cat tree or activity center to keep them occupied.

Also Read: How Much Attention Do Cats Need? A Vet Explains

2. They Attack

kitty admires its on point look in the mirror

This cat looks only slightly unnerved by the sight of their own reflection, but some felines feel threatened by the cat looking back.

If your cat immediately attacks the front of the mirror, they might feel on edge or stressed. Similarly, if they’re feeling ill or under the weather, it could make them more grumpy and likely to lash out.

On the other hand, an aggressive reaction to their reflection is a completely reasonable response if you consider that another cat could make them feel threatened.

Also Read: 5 Visual Signs Of A Stressed Cat And How To Help

3. They Jump

kitten with blue eyes looks in a mirror

“Who is that adorable kitten!?!” Some cats are startled and jump when they see their own reflection in the mirror.

As we mentioned, it’s quite rare for a cat to be shocked because they’re usually very aware of who’s occupying their immediate surroundings. So, you can imagine that if your cat is feeling confident and assured in their environment and then catches sight of another cat out of the corner of their eye, they’re bound to jump in shock!

Also Read: How High Can A Domestic Cat Actually Jump?

4. They Allorub

Orange and brown bengal kitten cat looking at reflection in mirror

Some cats start rubbing on the mirror when they catch sight of their own reflection. Perhaps they’re marking their territory to defend against the unknown cat, or maybe they just like what they see.

If they like what they see and feel friendly, they might start purring and allorubbing against the mirror. This is a sign of affection as well as a way of scent-marking to show that the new cat belongs to them.

However, if they allorub against other furniture, walls, or surfaces they could be making sure that their territory is marked so that there is no confusion about what’s theirs when the ‘new cat’ comes in.

Also Read: What Does It Mean When A Cat Rubs Against You?

5. They Investigate

the cat looks at herself in the mirror and is very surprised

Often, our curious felines will investigate the reflection and mirror to find out what’s happening.

Cats are curious by nature – as the saying goes, curiosity killed the cat. Many curious cats will investigate and try to solve the mystery of the mirror if they see their reflection. They might try touching their reflection, calling out with a meow to the new cat in the mirror, or even searching behind the mirror to try to get to them.

Of course, if you were a cat and didn’t understand the concept of a reflection, a mirror would be pretty confusing.

Also Read: What Do Cats Think About? Science May Have The Answer

6. They Ignore

Cat looks in the mirror

Once a cat has become acclimated to the mirror’s presence, they’ll usually just ignore it.

Cats are also creatures of habit, and they learn quickly. So, if your cat regularly passes a mirror in the same place every day, they’re unlikely to keep giving a wild reaction. Pretty soon they’ll accept that they don’t understand the cat in the mirror but that they’re not a threat. You might notice that they stop looking at the mirror and can walk past without any hesitation.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Ignore Me?

Conclusion

blue british shorthair kitten looking into the mirror

Like human children under the age of about two, our cats don’t recognize themselves in the mirror at all.

Although, as humans, we understand how mirrors work and recognize our own reflection, this won’t have always been the case. Humans aren’t born with a sense of self and it takes a couple of years to develop that recognition.

So, perhaps it’s not so surprising that cats don’t have a sense of self after all. Next time you’re watching your cat behave strangely because of a mirror, you’ll be able to spot some of the reasons why.

Also Read: Are Cats Smarter Than Dogs? Scientists Finally Have the Answer

Frequently Asked Questions

What do cats think when they see themselves in the mirror?

When a cat sees their reflection, they won’t know that it’s them. Cats don't recognize themselves, so they would assume it is another cat. They may feel frightened or threatened, or they might want to play.

Why do cats not look at themselves in the mirror?

Cats will think that their reflection is another cat, which means they could be a threat. If your cat wants to avoid conflict they may choose not to look at the other cat altogether!

Which animals recognize themselves in a mirror?

The great apes, dolphins, Asian elephants, and some magpies can recognize their reflection in a mirror. Of course, humans can too, but not until they are toddler age.

Are any cats self-aware?

Cats haven’t yet demonstrated any convincing behavior to suggest that they have self-awareness. However, cat behavior is so complex that there’s plenty of work to be done to understand them better.

Help us do better! Was this article helpful and relevant?
Yes
No
What can you say about this article?
I am completely satisfied, I found useful information and tips in this article
Article was somewhat helpful, but could be improved
Want to share more?
Thank You for the feedback! We work to make the world a better place for cats, and we're getting better for you.
Avatar photo

About Dr. Hannah Godfrey BVETMED MRCVS

Hannah graduated from the Royal Veterinary College, UK in 2011 and began work straight away at a busy mixed practice. Initially, she treated all species, but as the small animal hospital became busier, she focussed on small animals. Hannah is an expert on cat behavior and nutrition.

Want to give your cat better care every day? Get our free day to day care guide.

Based on advice from cat behaviorists, we’ve developed a step-by-step guide to a healthy routine that brings out your cat’s best. From daily habits to yearly must-do’s, we’ve laid out everything you need to set the foundation for a stress-free, happy life.

Inside the day to day guide, you’ll find:
  • Easy to understand infographics
  • Checklists for simple management
  • Must-do’s for a healthy cat

Get your free guide! Get your free guide!