Do Cats Recognize Their Reflections in a Mirror?

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Nils Jacobi/iStock via Getty Images

Written by Kristen Holder

Published: January 29, 2024

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Not many animals can recognize their reflections in a mirror. Even humans don’t gain the ability to recognize themselves in reflections until they’re over a year old. Gorillas, dolphins, and chimpanzees recognize themselves in a mirror, but what about cats? Do cats recognize their reflections in a mirror?

How Smart Are Cats?

People who own cats will tell you that cats are very smart.

People who own cats will tell you that cats are very smart.

Any cat owner will tell you that some of their cats are smart. On average, a typical house cat can be as smart as a toddler human being. They can be trained, they know how to communicate when they need something, and they learn from past experiences.

Not only do cats have complex thoughts when they’re awake, but they also dream. Their dreams are complex, and they can be recalled once the cat is awake.

As with dogs, some cat breeds have a reputation for a higher intelligence than others. Cats that are usually considered smart are Bengals, Abyssinians, and Siamese. These cat species are high energy, respond to stimuli and training, are curious, and are more willing to work with humans than other species.

Do Cats Recognize Their Reflections in a Mirror?

Cats do not recognize their reflections in a mirror.

Cats do not recognize their reflections in a mirror.

No, cats do not recognize their reflections in a mirror. If a cat even notices their reflection, they usually see it as another cat or as a reflection that they don’t recognize as theirs. However, cats can be taught through repetition to recognize their reflections, but it is not a natural talent.

Even if cats do recognize movement within the mirror, they probably don’t have a meaningful memory of their appearance. If they react to reflective movement, and even if they notice this movement is related to them, they still may not recognize themselves.

Years ago, a theory testing the ability of animals to recognize themselves in the mirror was conducted by scientists. A red dot was painted onto the foreheads of unconscious animals. When they woke up, these animals were put in front of a mirror.

The idea was to see if the affected animals would try to remove the dot off of their foreheads. If they did, it would show that they recognize they are seeing themselves reflected. Not many animals passed this test and reacted to the dot. Cats were among the failures.

Cats seeing their reflections in the metal cages at veterinary offices and shelters is a safety concern. That’s because a stressed cat may immediately assume the reflection seen in the metal is another cat. Since they’re already heightened, the chances of them attacking are high.

Are Cats Self-Aware?

While cats are probably not self-aware, they do have an understanding of themselves.

While cats are probably not self-aware, they do have an understanding of themselves.

While no one is sure if cats are self-aware, scientists do know that cats understand a sense of self. For example, they feel happiness, they feel pain, and they have opinions about things like favorite foods. However, whether they understand if they are an entity perceiving things is a mystery.

Cats are not self-aware enough to understand that they are seeing themselves in mirrors or pictures. They can perceive the difference between people and animals in their presence whether they can see them or not.

Even though cats sometimes look like they’re deep in thought, they probably aren’t. Cats don’t understand the future or their past, so they don’t think about what they’ll be doing tomorrow or what their owner is doing while they’re away.

Do Cats Recognize Their Owners?

Cats recognize their owners using visual stimuli, smells, and sounds.

Cats recognize their owners using visual stimuli, smells, and sounds.

Cats recognize their owners but not in the same way that people recognize other humans and animals. Humans use their memory based on sight to identify beings they have interacted with previously. Animals also see, but they rely more heavily on other senses like hearing and smell.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes rely heavily on sight when it comes to recognizing their owners. For example, some cats are seen mistaking one human for another until they’re close enough to smell. Other cats are reactive to changes in visuals, like hats. When their owner puts on a hat, they may run away in fear.

Cats are capable of long-term memory, with some individuals showing recognition over ten years after the last contact. They know the difference between dinner time, playtime, and other moments in their days because they’re sensitive to sounds, smells, and small behavioral changes that signal different events.

It’s been shown that cats recognize their owner’s voice, and they respond much more strongly to hearing their owners than to others. They are familiar with the specific intonation their person uses when trying to get their attention. However, whether or not they respond to their owner’s voice ultimately comes down to whether they want to respond in any way or not.

To a cat, humans are not completely different animals. They see us as big cats that deserve special treatment because of our size and hairlessness, but not because we are seen as much different. We aren’t another species to them which is why they rub on us and cuddle with their people.

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About the Author

Kristen Holder is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics related to history, travel, pets, and obscure scientific issues. Kristen has been writing professionally for 3 years, and she holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Riverside, which she obtained in 2009. After living in California, Washington, and Arizona, she is now a permanent resident of Iowa. Kristen loves to dote on her 3 cats, and she spends her free time coming up with adventures that allow her to explore her new home.

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