The Cat in the Mirror. Do Felines Recognize Their Reflection?


This article will examine the question of whether cats are able to recognize themselves in mirrors. The ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is considered an indication of self-awareness and is linked to theory of mind. The classic way to test for this ability in animals is the mirror test, originally developed in the 1970s. In the mirror test, researchers secretly place a colored mark on an animal and then observe if the animal reacts to the unexpected mark when looking in a mirror. Animals that spend time examining the mark and touching it provide evidence that they understand the reflection is of themselves. While humans and some other animals like apes, elephants, and dolphins pass the mirror test, cats typically fail it. However, some cat owners report anecdotal evidence of their cats appearing to recognize themselves in mirrors. This article will explore what the science says about cat cognition and self-awareness and whether current evidence definitively answers the question posed in the title.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind refers to the ability to attribute mental states like beliefs, intentions, desires, and knowledge to oneself and others. It involves understanding that others may have different mental states and perspectives than one’s own (Krupenye, 2019). This theory of mind or self-awareness is considered a key component of higher intelligence and human-like cognition.

Researchers theorize that some animals may have a functional theory of mind or self-awareness demonstrated through social interactions and behaviors. For example, chimpanzees engage in complex social strategizing which suggests they understand goals and perceptions of other chimps. However, definitive evidence of non-human theory of mind remains elusive (Wikipedia, n.d.).


Mirror Test

The mirror test, also known as the mark test or mirror self-recognition test (MSR), is a behavioral technique developed in 1970 by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. as an attempt to determine if an animal possesses the ability of visual self-recognition. In the classic MSR experiment, the animal is marked with an odorless dye and then presented with a mirror. If the animal uses the mirror to investigate the new mark on their body, it suggests that the animal perceives the reflected image as itself rather than of another animal. This is taken as an indication that the animal is self-aware.

The idea for the mirror test arose from human observations of chimpanzees’ behaviors using mirrors. In the early 1960s, chimpanzees in several labs had been allowed to freely interact with mirrors, and some of these chimpanzees used their reflections for self-directed behaviors like picking their noses. Gordon Gallup Jr. reasoned that if the chimpanzees really understood that their reflection was themselves, then they might be able to use their reflections as an aid for exploring parts of their bodies they otherwise couldn’t see well. This led to the development of the original mirror test. (source)

Cats and Mirrors

Experiments testing cats’ response to mirrors have shown mixed results. The classic “mirror self-recognition test” developed by Gordon Gallup in 1970 involves secretly placing a colored mark on an animal’s body, and then observing if the animal tries to investigate or remove the mark while looking in a mirror. This test is considered an indication that the animal recognizes its own reflection.

Many studies have found that cats typically fail the mirror test, showing little interest in their reflections and not trying to remove marks placed on their bodies ( This suggests they likely do not recognize themselves in mirrors. One explanation is that cats rely more on other senses like smell rather than vision for self-recognition.

However, some scientists debate whether the mirror test is an appropriate measure of self-awareness in cats, since their reactions and behavior may simply be different compared to species that pass the test like chimpanzees. Some anecdotal reports of cats responding to mirrors in intriguing ways indicate there is still more to understand about feline self-perception. Ultimately, the question of whether cats recognize themselves in mirrors remains open.

Self-Aware Species

Only a select few animal species have demonstrated self-awareness by passing the mirror test, including chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins, elephants, and magpies. Great apes such as chimpanzees and orangutans were the first animals found to recognize themselves in a mirror, indicating self-awareness comparable to a human toddler. When placed in front of a mirror, apes will touch markings covertly placed on their face, signaling an understanding of their own reflection.

Bottlenose dolphins have also passed this test, as documented in a 2001 study where two dolphins touched markings on their bodies after observing themselves in a mirror. Asian elephants demonstrated similar self-directed behaviors when presented with a large mirror. More surprisingly, a single European magpie named Puck passed the mirror test in 2008, being the first non-mammal to exhibit clear self-recognition. These select animal species join humans in an exclusive club of creatures with confirmed self-awareness. Passing the mirror test requires advanced cognition and sense of self only found in certain intelligent social animals.


Why Cats Fail the Mirror Test

There are a few explanations for why cats fail the mirror test, even though they show interest in mirrors. According to The Science of Viral Cat Videos, cats do not recognize their own reflection. They react to their mirror image as if it is another cat. Cats also rely more on other senses like smell rather than vision for self-recognition.

Cats may fail the mirror test because their brains are wired differently. As explained on Reddit, cats have a lower density of neurons in their frontal cortex compared to primates and other animals that pass the test. Their brains are structured in a way that relies on instinct rather than higher cognitive functions.

While cats show interest in their reflections, they likely do not have the same degree of self-awareness and ability to recognize themselves as animals like chimpanzees that pass the mirror test. Their reactions to mirrors appear to be more instinctual than self-recognizing.

Cat Cognition

In recent years, there has been growing interest in researching cat cognition and intelligence. Cats have historically been viewed as more solitary and less socially dependent on humans compared to dogs. However, new studies are providing evidence that cats may have more complex social skills and cognition than previously believed.

Researchers have demonstrated that cats can interpret human facial expressions and recognize their owner’s voice. A 2021 study trained cats to recognize their owner’s smile, even when presented with the back of the head or hearing a voice recording. This suggests cats can identify familiar humans through multiple senses.

Experiments have also shown cats develop attachment styles with their caregivers similar to human children. Kittens separated from their mother and littermates at a young age tend to become more clingy and dependent. This highlights the importance of socialization in cognitive development.

While more research is still needed, these findings indicate domestic cats have more complex social intelligence than previously thought. Their ability to recognize emotions, voices, and form social bonds adds to our understanding of feline cognition.

Anecdotal Evidence

While scientific research indicates cats do not recognize themselves in mirrors, many cat owners have their own perspectives on this topic. On Reddit and other social platforms, numerous cat owners have shared anecdotes about their cats appearing to recognize themselves in mirrors and reacting in self-aware ways (1).

For example, some owners report their cats grooming themselves or checking their teeth in the mirror. Other owners describe their cats making prolonged eye contact with their reflection or tapping the mirror surface with their paw as if testing the image (2). These behaviors suggest recognition of their reflection to some cat owners.

Additionally, owners cite examples like cats reacting when they see their reflection with strange objects taped to their head. Or cats appearing startled the first time they encounter a mirror but less phased on subsequent viewings. These types of anecdotes lead many cat owners to believe their felines do recognize their mirror image.

While these observational accounts are subjective, they provide insight into cat cognition from the perspective of people who interact with cats daily. Controlled experiments indicate cats likely do not self-recognize. But some owners firmly believe their cat’s behavior shows self-awareness based onmirror encounters in the home.


Based on the research and findings discussed, there remains much debate around cats’ ability to recognize themselves in mirrors. While cats initially react to their reflection as if it were another cat, they do not seem to possess the higher cognitive ability for self-recognition demonstrated in species like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and magpies through the mirror test. However, some scientists argue that the mirror test itself may not be an appropriate measure of self-awareness in cats, given their different sensory capabilities and behavior compared to primates who pass the test.

Though cats fail the classic mirror test, some scientists believe their indifferent reaction to the mirror simply reflects their personality as largely solitary animals not driven by social curiosity. Anecdotal evidence of cat owners also suggests cats may understand their reflection, especially if exposed to mirrors from a young age. Overall, the bulk of evidence indicates cats likely do not have a full sense of self-awareness and self-recognition. But more research is still needed to fully understand the nuances of feline cognition and how to best evaluate self-recognition capacity in cats and other species.


No sources or studies are cited in the content.

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