Let’s Talk: Cats and Mirrors

I remember the first time I saw a cat interacting with a mirror. It was 1985. Our family cat, Iris, had given birth to a...

JaneA Kelley  |  Mar 7th 2012


I remember the first time I saw a cat interacting with a mirror.

It was 1985. Our family cat, Iris, had given birth to a litter of kittens (I know, I know — but I’ve explained this earlier, and every cat I’ve had since then has been spayed or neutered) about six weeks earlier, and one afternoon when I came home from school I found the little family exploring our living room.

Near the foot of the stairs, we had a large mirror sitting on the floor, propped up against a wall. The boldest of the litter was just going about his kittenish business when he looked up and saw Another Cat! He puffed up as big as he could, and with a hiss and spit, he charged … headlong, into the mirror.

Naturally, the impact sent him hurtling back, tail over teakettle.

As I sat on the sofa, laughing my head off, the little guy sat up, gave me an indignant look, and began to groom himself as if nothing had happened. I could even see the thought bubble over his head: “I meant to do that.”

On the other hand, my oldest cat, Siouxsie, with all the wisdom of her 15 years, seems to recognize her own reflection. When I pick her up and hold her so she can see herself in the mirror, I see her eyes soften and she gazes at herself with rapt attention. In fact, I’m thinking of getting a full-length mirror — not because it’d be kind of awesome to see how I look from top to bottom before I leave for work, but because I think I’d really enjoy watching Siouxsie admire herself.

Other people have shared their own cats’ reactions to the mirror. The caretaker of Freya, a Bengal cat rescued from the RSPCA, writes in her blog, “She seems completely uninterested in the cat in the mirror, but more strangely, seems very interested in other things around the room, especially US!”

Some people think cats don’t have the self-awareness to know that what they’re looking at is their own reflection. I don’t buy that, though. Maybe at first they don’t recognize themselves. After all, cats do have a range of reactions when they first see themselves.

Outgoing and curious cats tend to approach the mirror and try to sniff the stranger they see. Sometimes they even put out a paw to try and touch the other cat in the mirror.

Shy and skittish cats tend to get all fat-tailed and flee.

Aggressive cats — or bold little tom-kittens like my little mirror-charging friend — go into attack mode.

I’m sure the whole thing is very confusing at first. But I think eventually they notice that the strange cat doesn’t have a smell. Then they realize that the intruder seems to make the same exact gestures they do — and the smarter among them might just make the connection and say to themselves, “Hey, that’s me!”

Later on, I’m sure they add, “I sure am gorgeous, aren’t I? No wonder the humans adore me and tell me I’m the most beautiful cat in the world: it’s the absolute truth!”

You can see our beloved feline friends’ reactions to seeing their reflections in the mirror, in full-size Wild-Cat-O-Vision, in this video from the awesome folks at Big Cat Rescue.

(In a reader? Watch the video here.)

What about you? Have your cats encountered the mirror? How did they react when they first saw themselves?