For humans, the moment when a cat first discovers the mirror is delightful. The cat approaches its reflection with caution and curiosity. Some cats seem to have found a playmate; They try to engage “the other cat” in friendly games to no avail. Eventually the cat looks behind the mirror (or tries to) to get to “the other cat” and then gets bored with their non-reacting toy. Other cats are frightened by “the other cat” and display aggressive behaviors. They hiss and jump at the mirror as if fighting off an enemy while their owners laugh hysterically.
Who’s That Other Cat?
After some experience with mirrors, the excitement of “the other cat” dies off. Most adult cats (who have lived in a house that has mirrors) ignore their reflections as if they weren’t there. Has the cat learned that “the other cat” is actually their own reflection?
Believe it or not, the matter of cats identifying themselves in reflections has been a subject of interest in the field of psychology. Psychologists use an experiment called the Rouge Test or the Mirror Self Recognition Test when studying self awareness. The test is done on cats by placing a scentless dot on the cat in a place that would only be visible by looking in the mirror without the cat noticing. Then the cat is introduced to a mirror.
According to the psychologists that designed the test, if the cat reacts to the mirror in a way that shows they know that the dot is on them (trying to remove the dot or changing their position to further examine the dot), then the cat is self-aware and knows that it is their own reflection that they see. If the cat does not exhibit a behavior that recognizes the dot as being on them, then they are not self-aware and do not know that it is their own reflection.
The Rouge test has been performed on all sorts of animals. The only ones that have passed are humans (over 18 months old), gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants bottle nosed dolphins, magpies, orcas, and bonobos. No cats have passed yet!
Criticism of the Rouge Test
Not everyone thinks that the Rouge Test is a fair way of evaluating self-awareness in all animals. One criticism is that it does not take into account that animals like dogs and cats are not as reliant on their sense of sight as humans and other animals that passed. Another criticism is that the test assumes that the cat (or other animal) is aware that the spot doesn’t belong on their head and that they should clean it off. What if they don’t care about cleaning it off? Perhaps cats are not motivated to inspect or clean the dot.
What Do You Think?
Just so our little kitties don’t feel bad…
Here are some big kitties confused by their reflection too.