Do cats experience a sense of self?

A viral online video that seems to indicate cats are capable of experiencing “mirror self-awareness” falls short of proving that felines have a true sense of self-identity, according to this analysis based on the research of University at Albany psychologist Gordon Gallup. While a handful of animals — including primates, dolphins and elephants — are able to recognize themselves in the mirror, the more likely explanation is that the tuxedo cat in the video is expressing defensive behavior, Dan Nosowitz writes. Popular Science (4/9)

 
Earlier today, Gawker posted a video of a housecat looking at itself in a mirror, slowly raising one paw and looking with wonder at its own reflection. “Smart cat figures out how mirrors work,” reads the headline. Let’s delve very deeply into a minute-long YouTube clip of a cat doing something weird!  Click the link below:

Mirrors are used in cognitive science in a task called the “mirror self-awareness test,” or MSR test. It’s a controversial experiment, developed back in 1970 by a University of Albany psychologist named Gordon Gallup who later wrote a scholarly article called “Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties?” The MSR test requires that an animal be given some kind of visual oddity, usually a dot or two of color, on a part of their body only visible through a mirror (often on a part of the face or head). If the animal (or human!) sees their reflection in the mirror and attempts to touch the part of their own body with the unfamiliar dot of color, that animal is judged to have demonstrated mirror self-awareness.

Very few animals pass this test. All of the great apes–humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans–pass, as do some cetaceans like bottlenose dolphins and orcas (killer whales), and a few oddballs like the elephant and magpie. Some other animals demonstrate partial self-awareness–gibbons and some macaques, for example, will sometimes become confused and gesture at their faces, which does not constitute a pass of the test but does indicate that they understand that something odd is going on. A few monkey species, pigs, and corvids (crows, ravens, jays) demonstrate a similar partial understanding of the self.

Humans, interestingly, change in their perception of themselves; before the age of about 18 months, humans have either no or only partial success in the MSR test. Before 18 months, they’ll react with curiosity or avoidance.

Cats have never once demonstrated that they have any sense of self at all. Reactions of cats to being shown their reflection in a mirror vary; some will ignore the reflection, some will attempt to investigate behind the mirror to find the cat that is presumably back there, some will act wary or aggressive towards what appears to be another cat able to counteract its own gestures perfectly. This is a freaky thing, if you don’t know that it’s you in the mirror.

The cat in this video is behaving defensively, with the “anxious” posture laid out in this helpful chart of feline body language. Notice that its ears face entirely toward the “threat,” that its tail is puffed up and often pointing downwards–these are cat signals that mean “defensive aggression.” Its attack posture is kind of…not very threatening, moving slowly and warily like that, but it’s still quite clear why it’s acting the way it’s acting. It’s not waving at itself, it’s gesturing threateningly at the scary cat staring out at it from a few feet away.

 For a video to see a cat react to it’s reflection, click the following link: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ssFfh5wNsao

The mirror test is controversial in the psychology field; there’s the problem of children or animals not caring that there’s a spot on their faces, and so providing a false negative result when they don’t bother to clean it. It’s also been theorized that the test is unfair for animals that rely more on other senses than sight. The domestic dog, for example, relies much more heavily on smell than sight.

There’s also the more philosophical problem of, what does this actually even say? Really, the only thing that it proves is the ability to recognize one’s self in a mirror. This paper argues that you can’t really extend success in the MSR test to represent full self-awareness.

Sorry, wary waving tuxedo cat. You still haven’t demonstrated self-awareness. But you are very cute.

33 Responses to “Do cats experience a sense of self?”

  1. Rob says:

    Cats are self aware. I have observed a cat(cat 1) I owned react to me putting a collar on her, because she had been acting jealous towards the other female cat who had a collar of her own. When I gave cat 1 a collar she jumped onto a vanity to examine the color in the mirror. Clearly you all don’t spend much time with cats.

    • Jasmine says:

      Well it’s pretty obvious you don’t know very much either haha.. cats, well any animal really, are not capable of being “jealous” that’s a human concept.

      Why would a cat be jealous of a collar? A cat wouldn’t gain anything out of wearing one. What is it that the cat was doing that makes you think its jealousy?

      I also don’t think she was jumping up to the mirror to examine the colour.. for one cats can’t see very much colour at all, pretty much only yellow really, it was more likely along the lines of “wtf is this around my neck?”

      • Hamy says:

        Dude, animals can be jealous, havent you heard of the story where a guy gave a monkey some cake for his birthday but not the other monkeys, so the other monkeys got jealous and basically teared the guy’s face up and fucked him up bad…

        Idk about cats , but monkeys/apes (not sure what animal it was but you can google the story)

      • Beth says:

        I don’t know if ‘jealous’ is the right word, but they certainly can want what others have. I have two cats – we’ll call them cat 1 and cat 2.

        *me finished wrapping presents and leave a pile of presents in 2 big santa sacks*

        Cat 1 walks up to sacks and begins to rub against them and roll around on them. A few minutes into it, cat 2 looks up from a nap and sees what’s going on. Her ears prick up and she sits intently watching cat 1. As soon as cat 1 walks away, cat two leaps down, straight over to sacks as begins doing exactly what cat 1 was doing. She definitely saw her and thought, “I want to do that too!”

        • KJ says:

          Dude, animals such as dogs and monkeys have been observed to get jealous of getting less attention, or a different treatment. They react in a similar way as babies do, make noise and be more aggressive to the one getting the attention. It’s a basic survival instinct to seek attention and care

      • Daniel says:

        it was more likely along the lines of “wtf is this around my neck?” <—– so… you're saying it jumped up to check itself out in the mirror…

    • Matt says:

      You guys are giving consciousness too little credit. It is not a species thing. Individual blood lines, evolution and enviornment all play a big role here. just because one cat is not self aware doesn’t mean another isn’t. My first ever comment on anything other than social media. please be gentle with me

      • Brett says:

        Growing up on a ranch, I have observed certain characteristics of horses which could be understood as jealousy. I owned a female horse at one point which would get angry if there was any other female around me (whether human or equine) and place herself in between myself and the other.

  2. Jasmine says:

    Well it’s pretty obvious you don’t know very much either haha.. cats, well any animal really, are not capable of being “jealous” that’s a human concept.

    Why would a cat be jealous of a collar? A cat wouldn’t gain anything out of wearing one. What is it that the cat was doing that makes you think its jealousy?

    I also don’t think she was jumping up to the mirror to examine the colour.. for one cats can’t see very much colour at all, pretty much only yellow really, it was more likely along the lines of “wtf is this around my neck?”

    • Jenna Knutson says:

      This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. Cats don’t get jealous? Please. One of my cats 10000% exhibits jealous behavior. Every time we start to snuggle one of his brothers, he shoves his way in to be snuggled instead. He needs ALL the attention on him. I have also seen numerous dogs I’ve owned exhibit jealous behavior. YOU obviously dont spend much time around animals, and if you do it’s definitely not observing their behavior.

      • Dan says:

        I got a bit goosebumply reading your reply. That is EXACTLY what my cat I loved so much would do to . Esp. when. She was younger . Just gazing into my eyes for the longest time. And she would reach out with her paw and gently touch my face. She didn’t freak out defensively if she looked at a mirror. She just kind of looked at her reflection . Completely unscientific, and with lots of personal bias of course, but I always had this feeling that she was somehow right at the verge of becoming completely aware. As if assuming there is truth to the idea of reincarnation and evolving to higher forms of being, she was completed at any animal stage of reincarnation and would take would reincarnate into a human next. what if any level of awareness of self awareness cats have I don’t know , but she sure made me think about lots of things esp since I recently made the decision to have her euthanized due to her sufferings from lymphoma. Saddest most,difficult, just hardest thing ever. Something about her being, self aware or not profoundly affected this being. Maybe she lived her purpose, to help me wake up, shake me, and be more aware of… Whatever it is so that I don’t have to do it all over again, be the awareness instead of the self??

    • Tena Davis says:

      Why wouldn’t any animal with a frontal brain and the ability to produce hormones and chemicals from their glands experience what humans call jealousy? Those hormones and chemicals in reaction to external stimulus did not develop fully just in the great ape lineage. We’ve just given them a name and can explain it to other humans and most importantly think we are the only ones who have these abilities. Cats communicate with each other their feelings just fine without human language.
      More and more data is coming out about how non-human animals process as there are more species being trained to sit still for a functional MRI. Don’t foresee cats subjecting themselves to that but when the technology catches up I can’t wait to see what’s going on in those mischievous little heads.

  3. Alyce says:

    There’s another video on line now of a cat who finds its ears. Check that out. I would just Google; “cat finds its ears”.

    • Justin says:

      I just watched this video of the cat finding its ears. I don’t want to anthropomorphize, but it certainly appears the cat is aware that the reflection is itself.

      • Gigi says:

        I just watched the cat video in total disbelief. I took animal psychology in undergrad and was taught that cats did not have a sense of self until I watched this video. It’s absolutely stunning that he/he looks at themselves in the mirror not once, but TWICE, reaching up on top of their head as if, “oh wow. What are these upward objects on MY head?!” It’s absolutely unbelievable.

        I also always wondered years ago why my cat would run and hide for hours of me or my husband laughed if she had done something that would be embarrassing (e.g.: falling off a table or leaping and missing a chair). When we found her, she would look shamefully as if she was truly embarrassed. This behavior has only repeated itself when she’s done something that would have been, in fact, embarrassing. Perhaps there’s a lot we don’t know about cats. I spent an awful lot of bonding time with her as a kitten and she acts much differently from the typical “cat.” She’s very dog-like, very observant and close to family. She spends a lot of time looking at my eyes very gently and sweetly. Why, when she was a kitten, she got very close to my face and sat there gazing at me, and reached at my eyelashes softly as if she was curious what they were. She’s always made me feel very differently about cats and their intelligence. Seriously, whoever wrote this article, I hope they watched the video and re-examined their thoughts. Science is always evolving and the internet’s continual uploads of videos on cats across the world will help us understand them even better.

  4. Beverly says:

    My sister’s siamese cat who has compusive tidyness (a disorder some siamese cats have which causes them to overgroom) after he was neutered he walked past the mirror (he was still pretty loopy from the anastheasia) when he appeared to notice the green dye on his fur in the mirror and then frantically checked his own body and proceeded to try to clean off the dye.

  5. Sophie says:

    I once had a cat who knew what mirrors were for. My husband was >her< human. Where he went, she went. Where he sat, she sat. My dresser and my husband's dresser were on perpendicular walls. The bathroom door was on a wall across from my dresser. Rita would sit gazing into my dresser mirror. I realized one day that she wasn't looking at herself, but at the indirect reflection of my husband at the bathroom sink. The bathroom door was mostly closed, but his reflection in his dresser mirror was reflected into my dresser mirror, and she could watch her human brush his teeth, trim his beard, and comb his hair. She died in his arms, age 17.

  6. CAROLINE says:

    My black male cat lives with a tabby female, and they get on well normally, but the black cat likes to play-fight with the female.
    Today the tabby cat was on the stairs, and the black cat came through my bedroom door, then parked himself just inside the bedroom, by the doorpost, out of sight of the landing. He watched the door, expectantly, in a ‘pounce’ position. The tabby cat came across the landing (out of sight of the black cat) and as she walked through the doorway the black cat pounced on her.

    The black cat must have had a sense of self. He guessed that the tabby cat was heading up the stairs and was likely to come into the bedroom. He knew that she would not be able to see him if he hid just inside the bedroom, next to the doorway.
    He worked out that he could surprise her if she walked through the bedroom doorway.
    He must have thought this through, anticipated the tabby cat’s likely direction, and worked out that she would not be able to see him as she walked towards the bedroom.
    He pounced on her, and she was clearly surprised and not expecting him.

  7. Annij says:

    @Jasmine

    I do not wish to be impolite, but your comment: “Well it’s pretty obvious you don’t know very much either haha.. cats, well any animal really, are not capable of being “jealous” that’s a human concept.”
    Jealousy isn’t a human concept. This behaviour, and behaviour is all we can truly examine (even with humans regardless of what they tell you) is a trait exhibited by many species.
    Be wary of these absolute statements,–jealousy is a human concept–anthropologists used to believe that only humans could use tools, or talk or rationalize or plan or strategize or recognize themselves in a mirror. . . .

    • Eric says:

      Thank you for addressing this Anniji. At a more basic level, Jasmine’s response was inappropriate as demonstrated in the “Well, it’s pretty obvious you don’t know very much” comment. If you can’t respectfully disagree with another person’s perspective, then keep your comments to yourself.

  8. Chris says:

    What about Mimo the kitten demonstrating this behaviour..? Do we need a response to a dot to confirm self awareness? (What is an animal isn’t bothered by a dot but still self aware?) Mimo seems curious about how his ears look: https://www.facebook.com/uniladmag/videos/2339095532969542/

  9. Peg says:

    How about this video? The cat is not in a defensive position and is clearly checking out his ears in the mirror:

    https://www.facebook.com/uniladmag/videos/2339095532969542/

  10. racheltcat says:

    Yep the video of the cat checking out there ears! Either the test is flawed or the scientists were wrong. I hope they were wrong. I would love to communicate with animals in a more profound way,maybe there’s hope yet.

  11. Met says:

    How about this video? The cats are reacting to what is next to them in the selfie camera.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwoPQQSp0pA

  12. Ron says:

    Not sure if this video link will work, but doesn’t this video show cats are self aware? If they were not aware it was them in the video they would not be looking back at the person holding them to see if they do have the cat face?

    https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=506450550199442

  13. Leonardo says:

    More recently, a compilation video has been shared showing different cats with their owners in front of a pc or cell phone camera with some app that changes your face – in this case, the owner’s face was changed to look like a cat. The reaction of all the cats surprised me a lot: they all seemed to look cautiously at their owners to check if they were different. Very curious and different from what we learn about animals.

  14. Eli says:

    I didn’t think cats were but they definitely are beyond doubt. The real kicker was seeing cat reactions on face swap apps. When their face gets swapped they instantly look at their owners face away from the phone to double check the reality. In other words that recognise the image on the phone is a reflection.

  15. Michal says:

    I know a cat that literally passed the mirror test – she had a piece of cardbord stuck on her head and when she walked past a mirror, she noticed it and put it down with her paw. We’ll try to replicate it on video, but she’s very old and her health condition is slowly getting worse, so I’m worried that she maybe isn’t so bright anymore.

  16. Fast says:

    https://youtu.be/akE2Sgg8hI8 Oh yeah? What’s this then?

  17. Camden says:

    Cats are not self aware, or atleast not in the sense your thinking. Let me explain, humans are a species that through language, evolution, and many other factors have developed consciousness and that Includes- beliefs, thoughts, emotions, memories, story is, logic ect and all it is, is neurons firing in your brain. And cats perhaps show not jealousy… but a sense of wanting what others have because jealousy Is more of a self aware concept, a cat that could benefit from what another cat has is what I’m trying to say.. therefore is commonly believed cats and other animals show jealousy but I assure you that’s not the case.

  18. Proof says:

    Cat’s not only pas the mirror test they also pass a test that shows cats know other entities in the mirror.

    Cat’s become spooked when a reflections appearance doesn’t match their real world appearance.

    https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=219579455825640&external_log_id=527b5be8-0dea-410e-9db7-b991bfed5a8d&q=Filtro%20de%20gato%20XD

    In order for this to work they have to recognize that what they are looking at is a reflection, and that something isn’t right.

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