Can other animals recognize their own reflection? This is one of the most interesting questions in animal psychology and leads to some quite entertaining films. It does seem that chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins, and maybe elephants seem to know they are looking at themselves in the mirror, at least after some experience. But what about cats?
Many people are convinced that their cat definitely recognizes its own reflection. The cat reacts to the reflection, and may even seem to be admiring it or reacting in ways that seem to indicate self-recognition. But such informal observation doesn’t tell us much. Here is a typical video of a cat looking at a mirror. Of course, the owner thinks the cat is posing and aware that the reflection is itself. Many commenters believe it, as well.
You must realize that even human children do not at first recognize their own reflection in the mirror. It takes about 18 months before they begin to do so. If a cat could recognize his own reflection, this might indicate that he is at least as intelligent and self-aware as an 18-month old human. That is if we believe that recognizing your reflection is an indicator of intelligence or self-awareness.
If you really wanted to test your cat, you’d use what the aptly named ‘rouge test.’ If you are more into official sounding names you can call it the MSR test or “Mirror Self-Recognition Test.” This is how animal psychologists figured out that chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants, dolphins, and even magpies recognize their own mirror images. Dolphins were a bit harder to prove than you might think.
The rouge test is pretty simple in application, if complex in control. Scientist paint a mark somewhere on an animal’s body that the animal cannot normally see then check to see whether the animal reacts to this mark when looking in a mirror. It doesn’t have to be rouge of course. But, after painting a red mark on a chimpanzee’s forehead, the chimpanzee will likely react by reaching up and touching the red mark, as if to say, how the hell did that get there?
As I said, dolphins were a bit tougher to check. The problem is that when a chimp reaches up and touches a mark, it’s a bit obvious that they are reacting to the mark and recognize the reflection as their own. But dolphins don’t have any hands to touch marks with, so the behaviors they demonstrate which seem to be reactions to marks, such as turning their bodies to inspect the area, might be misinterpreted. Nevertheless, after some painstaking 2001 research by Reiss and Marino at the New York Aquarium, it seems fairly certain that dolphins, too, pass the test.
But do cats? Alas, no. Neither do dogs and monkeys. Yes, cats looking in mirrors for the first time do tend to approach the reflection. They may even touch their nose to the nose of the reflection and react to the movement, etc. They respond much the same way a child does who does not yet recognize a reflection as him or herself. Only a child will eventually figure out that they are looking at themselves. Cats, on the other hand, do not and have never indicated reliably that they are able to learn to recognize their reflection.
Kittens will react quite hilariously to mirrors at first. There are plenty of YouTube videos to corroborate this. However, if they are afraid or alarmed by the ‘other cat’ they quickly grow bored and will stop reacting strongly. Many people take this as evidence that they are no longer concerned because they know it is them in the mirror. This is not evidence, but simply one of many possible interpretations of the behavior. Although we can never know what a cat is thinking, it is just as likely that they grow bored of the image and don’t think much about it at all.
But how can I say that? Well, cats do not rely strongly on vision like we humans. The cat in the mirror may look like a cat, but there is no scent. And, there is no sound. Without a smell or any other sense signals, a cat may just not see the image as important. Cats are strongly triggered by movement. It may be the movement in the mirror that caught its attention in the first place. But when no smell and no sound is forthcoming, cats eventually learn to ignore the mirror. You may notice that the television keeps your cat’s interest longer than a mirror. There is movement and sound. A program about birds might be quite entertaining to a cat, at least for a short time.
Before you go thinking that I’m trying to prove cats are dumb or “not self-aware” the idea that recognizing your reflection is an indicator of self-awareness is quite controversial. Just because a chimpanzee can recognize itself in the mirror does not mean it is capable of more abstract levels of self-awareness or that it ruminates on its own mental state. To prove that will be much more difficult.