Self-awareness in animals is often seen as a sign of intelligence, and it is something that scientists have looked at for decades, not only in cats but also in virtually every species of animal. Despite what it might look like when your cat does see themselves in a mirror, scientists claim that they do not recognize their own reflection and are instead either defending against what they deem to be an aggressor or acting aloof in the hope that the “other cat” will leave.
What Is Self-Awareness?
Recognizing oneself in a mirror requires a great deal of complex thought and incredible self-awareness. Humans aren’t the only species that can recognize a reflection to be themselves, but they are the most advanced. Other species that can recognize their own reflection include whales and dolphins, orangutans, chimpanzees, and elephants1. Magpies and pigeons have also passed what is known as the red dot test. Species that have actively failed the test include monkeys, which are often seen as being highly advanced, and giant pandas.
The Red Spot Test
The red dot test is the scientific test most often used to determine whether an individual or a species does indeed recognize their own reflection. The test is also referred to as the mirror self-recognition test or the mark test.
Developed in 1970 by scientist Gordon Gallup Jr., the test requires that an animal is anesthetized, and a red dot is placed somewhere on the animal that they would not normally be able to see. When they wake up, they are given access to a mirror. If that animal touches the red dot or attempts to investigate the dot on themselves, it means that they recognize their own reflection and the fact that there is an unusual or unexpected mark on them. It shows that they do not see the reflection as another animal.
Cats and the Mirror Test
Cats have been subjected to the mirror test in controlled conditions, as well as simply placed in front of a mirror in their home. When put in front of a mirror, cats may act aloof and ignore the reflection, they may look behind the mirror to find the animal that they see, or they may strike a defensive pose in a bid to get rid of the threat of another cat in the same vicinity. This is considered to be a failure of the test, so cats are not considered to be self-aware in this way.
This doesn’t mean that cats don’t have other forms of self-awareness. They may be aware of their own voice or other characteristics, but they are not self-aware and do not recognize themselves in a mirror.
Cats and Intelligence
If you believe cats to be quite intelligent, it is worth noting that the feline is still an incredible animal and they show intelligence in many other ways.
For example, in controlled experiments, they have shown that they understand the concept of object permanence. They recognize that an object continues to exist even when it is out of sight, which is why if you put one of their favorite toys in the cupboard, they understand that it is still there, potentially even weeks later.
They are also known to have long and in-depth dreams, similar to those of humans. However, they do not understand cause and effect as humans do.
Cats do have memories that can last as long as 10 years. Some experiments show that cats follow the law of effect, which means that they can accidentally perform an action that has a desirable effect and then continue to perform that action and with greater consistency because they want the desired effect.
Are Cats Self-Aware?
We tend to think of cats as being highly intelligent animals. This is largely because they communicate with us by meowing and using other verbal and non-verbal cues. We respond to them, and this gives us an inflated opinion of their intelligence. They are intelligent enough to learn habits and determine when it is food time, have good memories, and understand object permanence.
However, the red spot test suggests that they are not visually self-aware—they do not recognize their own reflection as themselves and are more likely to consider it to be another cat.
But as any cat owner will attest, cats don’t need to be self-aware, as long as their humans are aware enough to do their bidding.
Featured Image Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay