Why do cats ignore their reflections in mirrors

Marilyn is Wrong Copyright © 1996-1998 Herb Weiner. All rights reserved.

Ask Marilyn ® by Marilyn vos Savant is a column in Parade Magazine, published by PARADE, 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017, USA. According to Parade, Marilyn vos Savant is listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records Hall of Fame" for "Highest IQ."

Larry Robinson <lrobins@indiana.edu> reported that in her Parade Magazine column of November 17, 1996, Marilyn claimed that Dogs and Cats usually don't respond to their image in a mirror. If you have this column, please send it to me.

Larry Responds

Marilyn goofed again. Every cat I know ignores mirrors, but every kitten I've ever known has played with the kitten in the mirror. After a couple of days, it ceases to be fun, because the kitten can predict every move the kitten in the mirror makes. After this, the kitten ignores the reflection, although I was able to prolong the fun a couple more days by moving the mirror without the kitten seeing me do it. After that, the kitten ignored all reflections.

As for TV images, the scan rate is designed with human vision persistence in mind. Cats are more motion sensitive, and may see the moving scan line instead of the image. Dogs and cats ignore sounds from stereo sets because the top of their hearing range is not produced from recordings designed for human hearing.

What I have observed is that the kitten quickly learns about reflections, and ignores them afterwards as just unimportant reflections. The game gets old when the kitten can predict every motion of the reflection. I have also seen kittens try to play with the kitten in the water dish, and getting an unpleasant surprise when they do. Since all kittens have to drink to survive, it seems to be an early learned behavior to ignore reflections. Marilyn says that they do not notice because they are smell oriented. If so, why do cats watch things out of windows?

Even humans ignore reflections. Unless you are actually using a mirror, do you notice what is in it? Also, have you ever taken a picture through a window, only to find a reflection of a lighted lamp in the middle of your picture when the prints come back? (And how many people have sent in such photos as pictures of UFOs if that lamp appears in the sky part of the picture?)

In the case of TV, the cat's eye may have lower visual persistance time due to the shorter neural paths. If this is the case, the cat sees the moving scanning line rather than a picture. It looks to the cat sort of like an operating TV set in a scene of an old movie, where you see flickering bars rapidly moving down the screen. Studios have to use special techniques to make a TV picture appear normal in a movie.

Sometimes when a new mirror is "discovered" by a mature cat, it starts to raise a paw in defense. When it sees the image do exactly the same thing, it knows it is a reflection and walks away. It reacts quite differently when another cat is on the other side of a window. Maybe cats have more recognition of "self" than we recognize.

Specifically I say Marilyn is wrong because these animals have learned to ignore reflections through kittenhood experiences. I cite these through experience, having had the same cat for 17 years, 5 litters of kittens, and many relatives and neighbors with cats and kittens...and because I thought kittens were having so much fun playing with their reflections, that I wondered why they quit doing it so quickly.

Another Observation

Marc A. Murison <murison@riemann.usno.navy.mil> writes:

I'd like to add the further comment that not all cats ignore mirrors. Mine always ignores the reflection of herself, but she routinely uses the bathroom and bedroom mirrors for viewing other objects. Namely, she looks right at us (in the mirror) and meows to get our attention, she follows us in the mirror as we walk around and/or go through the morning routine, and she watches TV in the bedroom mirror. So here's at least one example of a cat that uses mirrors much like we humans do.

A note regarding cats and TVs: as mentioned, my cat watches TV. She loses interest usually after 1-5 minutes, but she defnitely is seeing something. Motion on the screen seems to be the key, hence an affinity for baseball and mouse cursors. She often sits at my desk and watches the computer monitor as I work, sometimes avidly and sometimes dispassionately. She used to bat at the mouse cursor and (of all things!) baseball pitchers' butts, but she learned from the frustration and is now content to just follow the movements. She's almost 7 now and quite set in her ways, so this is not ascribable to kitten or adolescent quirkiness.

Video Catnip

Scott n Chris Stewart <smsncas@IX.NETCOM.COM> suggest that cats basically work on multiple sensing - if they only see it, they ignore it; if they see and hear it, it's valid; if they smell it, it's real no matter what.

Television, with some videos such as "video catnip", shows that if you get their sound attention along with the visual, and it's not predictable and obvious such as in a mirror, then the cat will jump at the tv (and crawl behind it to catch the critter.)

We have three cats. The one that's the most interested is about 2. The completely uninterested one is about 4, and the one that occasionally checks it out is about 5. When we first turn it on, and crank up the volume, they'll all come out and see what's making the chirping noise, but only the youngster will stay... Heh. It's a lot of fun.

Educational TV

Bo Briggs <bobriggs@usa.net> writes:

the question was answered in a PBS, Discovery channel, or The Learning Channel presentation. Sorry I can't remember the name, but I think it was simply "Cats".

A cat was shown in front of a bathroom mirror for a while and ignored its image. Explanation from the TV show was that cats' senses were more developed in smell and hearing as they aged, therefore, sight was unimportant. The show went on to say that if you walked into a room and the cat knew you, it would recognize your scent before it would approach you. The mirror explanation was that since the cat could not smell anything (from its image in the mirror), then it was meaningless and the sight information was discarded in its brain.

http://www.wiskit.com/marilyn/mirrors.html last updated June 30, 1998 by herbw@wiskit.com