Why Do Cats Act So Crazy When They See Themselves in a Mirror?

Anyone who loves cats has witnessed the “cat in a mirror” phenomenon. The first time a cat catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she usually goes absolutely crazy! She’ll puff herself up really big, walk on her tiptoes, and maybe even try to attack her own reflection. But just why do cats go so crazy when they see their reflection?

Cats Aren’t the Only Animals That React to Their Reflection

Although it seems like we commonly hear about cats reacting the most violently to their reflections, other animals do it too. Dogs, birds, even reptiles like lizards may react like a crazy animal when they catch their own reflection, either trying to play with their reflection or even attacking it. Cats, it may seem, just have the most consistently violent reaction to seeing themselves.

Cats Don’t Recognize Themselves

Here’s the deal… Cats don’t recognize themselves when they look in a mirror. When they see their reflection, they think they’re seeing another cat. Because cats tend to be territorial, they may react by puffing themselves up and trying to defend their territory from the new intruder.

So why do cats eventually give up and stop attacking their own reflection? Cats don’t rely primarily on their vision when it comes to identifying other animals. They rely more on their sense of smell to identify other cats. That’s why when you bring a cat home from the vet, the other cats in your house might not recognize her at first. This concept works similarly with mirror reflections. A cat will eventually realize that the reflection she’s attacking doesn’t have a scent, so she’ll figure out that she can just ignore the reflection because it doesn’t pose a threat.

Self-Awareness: The Mirror Test

Many psychologist experts use the “mirror test” as a way to determine if an animal is self-aware to the level that humans are. This essentially involves testing whether an animal recognizes its reflection in the mirror as being its own. Elephants, dolphins, orcas, and European magpies have passed the reflection test. Pigs haven’t passed it, but they can use their reflection to locate food that’s placed behind them.

However, the mirror test may have some flaws. As we talked about above, cats and other animals use different senses besides vision for identification. So the mirror test might simply not be the right type of test. Even humans don’t pass the mirror test until they’re around 18 months old. And in some cultures that aren’t raised around mirrors, a child might not recognize his reflection in the mirror at all.

Large Cats Do the Same Thing!

Domestic cats aren’t the only felines to react like crazy when they see their reflection in a mirror. Big, wild cats do the same thing! The reason is exactly the same as it is for their smaller domestic cousins: they momentarily think there’s a competitor in their personal space.

The next time you see a cat acting crazy about her reflection in a mirror, don’t be concerned. She might try to attack her reflection for a little while, but before too long she’ll realize the reflection’s not a threat and calm down. If you have your phone handy, you might want to record her “mirror fight” while you watch!