DEAR JOAN: About a year ago, we had a full length mirror installed on the inside of our bedroom closet door. Whenever our cat, Frida, sees that the door is opened, she starts hissing and growing at the cat in the mirror.
She tries to attack it and is ready to pounce on the cat that she thinks might be on the outside of the door.
I have held her in my arms in front of the mirror many times, trying to get her to understand that she is the cat in the mirror, to no avail. Recently I was sitting on our front porch, and I heard Frida hissing and growing; she was attacking her reflection in the side of a car parked in front of our house.
It is kind of funny, but I am curious about her behavior. We have had several cats throughout our lives, and none of them have tried to fight with their reflections. Neither have any of my friends’ cats. Have you any insights on this?
DEAR SUZANNE: None of the cats I have faithfully served in my lifetime have ever reacted to their own reflection, but it is fairly common behavior in the species.
Cats, like many animals, don’t recognize that the creature staring back at them is them. It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s just they don’t realize what they are seeing.
Scientists use the “mirror test” to judge self-awareness, holding mirrors up to animals to see if they recognize their own images. Animals that have passed include elephants, orcas, dolphins and European magpies, but most creatures, including dogs, cats, most birds and even children up to the age of 18 months, do not.
Pigs don’t recognize their own reflections either, but if food is placed behind them, they recognize it and its location, perhaps indicating they have their priorities straight.
Some don’t believe the mirror test is a good indicator of self-awareness, because it relies too much on visuals. Cats rely more on smell than vision when it comes to identifying other animals. There are many reported cases of cats not recognizing another household cat that has been away at the vet and returned with unfamiliar odors on its fur.
Frida is seeing what she believes is another cat, and because cats are territorial, she wants it to get the catnip out of her home. No matter how many times you hold her up to mirror, she’s never going to realize that, “Hey, it’s me, and I look good.” She’s always just going to see another cat.
Most cats eventually realize that the mirror cat is of no concern, and they’ll start ignoring the reflection. Either Frida is exceptionally territorial and stubborn, or she hasn’t had enough exposure to the mirror.
It’s likely — and understandable — that you want to minimize the fighting by keeping the closet door closed, but as long as she’s not harming herself or destroying your clothes, fighting it out with the reflection will teach her not to worry about it.
Domestic cats aren’t the only ones who have mirror issues. Lions, tigers, mountain lions and all the other big, wild cats don’t recognize their own mugs in the mirror.
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