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Do Cats Understand Mirrors & Their Reflection?

Brooke Billingsley

By Brooke Billingsley

Kitten touching reflection on glass door

Seeing how our cats act around mirrors can be quite entertaining, especially if you have a cat that gets a little spicy when they see themselves in the mirror. However, some cats don’t seem to even realize mirrors exist. So, what gives? Do cats even understand mirrors?


Do Cats Understand Mirrors?

Regardless of what it might seem like, cats actually don’t understand mirrors at all. Since they don’t create sound or interesting scents, they aren’t as entertaining as many toys are. Obviously, there is movement in a mirror when you create it, but many cats may not recognize the movement any differently than they would a shadow or a plant’s leaves moving when the air conditioner kicks on.

Even when cats acknowledge movement in the mirror, they are not aware they’re looking at themselves. The main reason for this is that cats lack self-awareness. Read on for more information about self-awareness and why it’s necessary to recognize oneself in a mirror.


What Is Self-Awareness?

Gray cat looking at reflection in mirror
Image Credit: Skitterphoto, Pixabay

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize oneself as an individual and visually recognize one’s own appearance. There are a few ways that scientists have found to test self-awareness, and cats consistently do not succeed at these tests.

The red dot test is when an animal is sedated or anesthetized, and then a dot is applied to their body. When they wake up, the animal is presented with a mirror. If they see the dot and begin working to remove it, they show a sense of self-awareness. For example, if you woke up and looked in the mirror and had a red dot on your forehead, you’d start working to remove it. On the other hand, your cat would not recognize the dot as being out of place on itself.

A simpler test of self-awareness is showing an animal a mirror and watching closely for specific responses. If you put your cat in front of a mirror and they attempt to look behind the mirror as if they’re looking for the animal in the mirror, they’ve failed this simple mirror test. If your cat shows nervous or aggressive posturing, this is also a failure of this test. If your cat doesn’t respond to seeing themselves in the mirror, this isn’t an outright failure of the test, but it also doesn’t show a sense of self-awareness.

In Conclusion

Cats regularly exhibit mental and emotional intelligence in the way they interact with humans, other animals, and the world around them. However, cats have shown scientifically and anecdotally that they simply don’t understand how mirrors work. They don’t understand that they see themselves when they look in the mirror, even when you have a cat that seems to enjoy staring at themselves in the mirror at times.

Some cats may show attention to mirrors, but they are attracted to the movement or light reflections they see in or from mirrors. There are some cats that enjoy playing in front of a mirror, though, and some may even recognize that they see another animal when they look into a mirror.

Featured Image Credit: Kadres, Pixabay

Brooke Billingsley

Authored by

Brooke Billingsley spent nine years as a veterinary assistant before becoming a human nurse in 2013. She resides in Arkansas with her boyfriend of five years. She loves all animals and currently shares a home with three dogs, two cats, five fish, and two snails. She has a soft spot for special needs animals and has a three-legged senior dog and an internet famous cat with acromegaly and cerebellar hypoplasia. Fish keeping...Read more

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