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What cats see when they look in the mirror

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Abby, our 16-year old cat, thinks she is.

When Abby could no longer jump up on the kitchen counter to eat from her bowl, we searched for a place she could easily reach but Teddy, our Lab, could not.

We placed the queen bee’s bowl in front of a large mirror on the master bathroom’s counter. From the floor the feline jumped to a small stool, and from the stool to the garden tub. Finally, Abby jumped from the tub to the bathroom counter. While this seems like a lot of jumping, it was really more like walking up a few steps.

The first time Abby jumped up on the counter for her food, she stopped short of her bowl and turned, facing the mirror. From my vantage point it looked like she had noticed her reflection. She seemed to stare at the white-and-gray cat staring back at her.

Abby didn’t try to touch the cat with a front paw or rub up against it. About a minute later she calmly walked over to her bowl to nibble her food.

On subsequent occasions she has gone straight to her food bowl and, as far as I know, has never stopped to look at the cat mimicking her movements again.

To check if a cat recognizes the image as itself, owners can do a Mirror Self-Recognition Test (MSR).

Scientists paint a mark somewhere on an animal’s body that the animal cannot normally see, then look to see if the animal reacts to this mark when looking in a mirror.

According to, cats as well as dogs failed the test.

So, if I were to take my red lip gloss and make a mark on Abby’s forehead, she would look in the bathroom mirror and lift a front paw to touch the glossy mark.

Scholarly research was an important part of my former life. But if you think I even entertained for a moment trying to put a glossy mark on the queen bee’s head you’re sadly mistaken. I decided to defer to the scientists’ findings. Abby didn’t recognize herself when she looked in the mirror.

Madeline Masters writes for that scientists believe cats don’t interpret a reflection as a real cat because the reflection has no smell. For cats as well as dogs, smell is more important for their survival than eye sight.

According to, the lack of smell or any other sense signals a cat may just not deem the image as important. Cats are strongly triggered by motion. It may be the movement in the mirror that catches their attention. But with no smell or sound in conjunction with the image, cats eventually learn to ignore the mirror.

Abby couldn’t smell or hear the cat trapped in the mirror, so she ignored the image. It makes sense. The cat ignores her family’s movements unless she smells a tuna fish can being open or milk being pored. She snubs Teddy until he barks.

The queen bee does recognize the large basin close to her food bowl with three rubbing posts. When she squawks at one of her human family, cold water spews forth from the middle post for her to drink or, if she’s in a playful mood, swat around the room.

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