SELF-AWARENESS IN CATS
By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman
The ability to perceive and recognize a reflected mirror image as self (mirror self-recognition, MSR) is considered a hallmark of cognition across species. The mirror test, in which a mark test is placed on the animal’s face, requires that the animal being tested displays self-directed behavior in response to seeing the mark on itself in a mirror. Chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, killer whales, elephants, and magpies demonstrate self-recognition in the mirror test. Most other animals, including cats and dogs, do not pass this test … or so it is said.
To recognize oneself in a mirror demonstrates self-awareness is key to the “theory of mind” concept. Theory of mind is defined as the ability to understand and consider another individual's mental state or of “mind-reading” (Premack and Woodruff, 1978). This ability requires the animal to recognize itself as distinct from others and is essential to the animal being able to interpret the meaning of others’ actions, mood, and situation. Secondary emotions, like empathy, require self-awareness and lead the ability to, in the case of empathy, to appreciate another’s plight.
I would like challenge the belief that cats do not recognize themselves in mirrors, or at least not all of them. Learning what mirrors portray is a learned skill that develops slowly. So some cats (and dogs) that see themselves in a mirror for the first time react as if they are seeing another animal. They may jump around, play, hiss, attach and hide from the ‘other cat’ in the mirror that is, in fact, themselves. But more experienced felines are not affected this way.
I have had 2 cats (still have one) that hated other cats. In seeing any other cat, Monkey, a domestic short hair tabby cat, would go into full affective defense response; fully pilo-erected, tail puffy (fear), legs drawn together as if standing on a small platform, back hunched, claws extended, ears flattened, pupils dilated, mouth open, hissing, ready to attack. However, if Monkey was held up to a mirror, there was no such reaction – just calmness and composure. The second cat, Griswold, also a tabby, would react the same way to other cats, but not to its own image in a mirror. To see how they would react to seeing themselves in the mirror, I would hold them up to the mirror, they see what they see and remains calm, almost disinterested. This implies that the feline image the cats were seeing is not another cat but simply themselves. There was no attempt to interact with the cat in the mirror in either case. Why would you seek to play with this “other cat” if the other cat is you?
In conclusion, I believe these 2 cats did recognize themselves in mirrors and that’s why they were un-phased. If they can recognize themselves and theory of mind, that means they can feel secondary emotions and are more intelligent than some would credit. Both cats were smart and affectionate to us, his owners, and reacted appropriately to our every move. It was as if they were constantly watching us for clues as to what was coming next. Clever cats. No flies on them!