Can cats be self-conscious?

Can cats be self-conscious?

Cats are conscious, sentient beings, so say scientists – belatedly. We knew all along. Those of us who really know our cats. The egg-heads were behind us. This is because they are conservative in mentality and like to measure things. They relied on how the human behaved – “behaviourism”, which is an approach to psychology that fits the scientist’s mentality.

Scientists used behaviorism as way of studying animals against a background of (a) the old fashioned but still acceptable way people considered animals “dumb beasts” and (b) the way people absolved themselves from their abuses of animals because they were dumb and didn’t feel pain and (c) animals don’t have emotions. Emotions were too unscientific. You can’t measure it. It is not surprising, therefore, that it took scientists so long to catch up with ordinary, thinking people.

It was only in the 1950s or so when veterinarians decided that cats felt pain. Until then, and in some places fairly recently, vets didn’t administer pain killers to a cat they had declawed and declawing obviously causes severe pain. Vets admit that now.

“We have never really trained veterinarians to think about pain associated with disease,” (Dr. William Tranquilli, professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois)

If vets, who are practical scientists were ambivalent about cats feeling pain you can see that they were relatively unconcerned about a cat’s emotions even if they did give it some thought.

We know that animals have emotions. Anyone can observe it. You don’t have to be a scientist. There are numerous examples. Witness elephants who take part in a sort of “mourning ritual” on the death of a family member.  Cats have emotions and emotions are very closely associated to consciousness

A definition of “conscious” is:

“Having an awareness of one’s environment and one’s own existence, sensations, and thoughts.”

And “emotion” is defined as:

“the affective aspect of consciousness”

So, my initial conclusion is that cats are conscious beings and the scientists (including some veterinarians) have been a drag on enlightenment and in so doing have held back advances in cat caretaking.

Self-consciousness is defined as:

“an acute sense of self-awareness”.

It can apply to shy people who are embarrassed. Being photographed makes some people self-conscious. What about cats? Well cats don’t like being photographed or stared at!

I asked the question in the post title because in a previous article I stated that cats should not be disturbed when using the litter tray. Are cats feeling self-conscious?

Well, we know cats are conscious, sentient beings. We know cats have emotions and we know cats fall into assertive (confident) and passive (timid) categories. Therefore it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that cats can be self-conscious sometimes. All the elements are in place for a cat to feel that emotion.

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Can cats be self-conscious? — 11 Comments

  1. I think maybe cats are more self conscious when strangers are around, our boyz won’t eat or play in front of anyone. Jozef puts himself between me and anyone who comes to our house who he doesn’t know, he must feel aware that he is guarding me.
    I do believe they are self aware, just like we are, we don’t consciously think to ourselves all the time ‘This is me and I’m doing this’ we just do it, so really we do more by instinct than thought, just like cats do.

    • There will come a time when we understand what a cat feels and thinks much more clearly and we will probably be very impressed. Cat are aware of themselves and I sometimes believe they are self-conscious meaning wanting to be alone and not looked at.

    • I am always thinking in complete sentences. There is never a time that there are not words going through my head– I can’t shut it off. My husband says he does not think in complete sentences all the time, or even in words. But how can one think without words? I look at Monty and wonder what it is like inside his little head. He doesn’t think in words. He responds to some words and understands much of what I say. But no other animal can utilize language as fully as a human. They can’t grasp grammar and syntax. Interestingly, humans deprived of contact with other humans also lack this ability. I read of a severe abuse case where no one ever spoke to this girl, they just locked her in a room alone and did the bare minimum to care for her. Even when they changed her diaper they refused to look at her and never spoke a word to her. After being rescued she was taught to speak but she can only learn words as a chimpanzee can or as Monty has, but she can’t form complete sentences. That part of her brain was rewired for other things since it was never used. Like a man born blind who will never see even if the problem with his eyes could be repaired, she will never learn grammar and syntax. There was a boy literally raised by wolves in a previous century who had a similar issue. His benefactor became very despondent over his failure to teach the boy to fully utilize language. The boy’s vocabulary grew, but he never could form grammatically correct sentences.

  2. I think they can be self conscious because if a cat does something ungraceful, something he did not intend to do, he will afterward sit with his back to you and he may quickly lick a paw. Anyone who lives with a cat comes to have a sense that a cat can feel embarrassed if he falls or fails to execute a move as planned. Just as it is built into cats to hide their pain, they are stoic about limitations of their physical abilities as well. Perhaps this is instinctual.

    Humans actually don’t have instincts. Animals do. They have built in behavior patterns, things they do not have to be taught to do, which cause them to choose behaviors that are more likely to lead to survival. Humans don’t have instincts because we don’t need them– we have larger and more complex brains.

    But is one species worth less than the other because his brain is smaller and wired differently? Do only humans feel emotions? Animals have an amygdala, don’t they? Aren’t emotions really more part of what scientists would call the primitive part of our brain?

    Just because animals have instincts while we have a prefrontal cortex doesn’t mean that animals could not have a soul, could not be self aware, could not feel emotion. How often are things we do not partly, at least, motivated by self interest? I cling to my spouse because he provides me emotional and financial support as well as protection. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love him. It doesn’t negate everything just because, like any animal, I also feel the need to defend my home and property against outsiders who would steal from me or harm me and I prefer being with other beings who treat me well and provide for my needs.

    A relationship between a human and a cat will never be the same as a relationship between two human beings. The greater can come down to the lesser though, just as God comes down to man through the incarnation of His Son. I have no illusions that Monty loves me. He is used to me and I feed him and keep him warm. That keeps him coming around. He depends on me for companionship also, having been taken from his feral cat colony by me at a young age. He seems like he would prefer other cats, but he will settle for me.

    My relationship with Monty is about my loving him, my caring for him, seeing his value and worth even though he is, as some would say, just an animal. It would be unloving to see him as worth less because his brain is smaller and wired differently. It would be unloving to question whether he even has feelings or a soul. Why is it important that I love and care for a small cat? I don’t know. Why would God want to bother with humans who do nothing but rebel against Him and hate Him? But He does care about us. And I see a parallel in His love and care for me in the love and care I try to give to that small cat He placed in my path one summer’s day.

    No, Monty isn’t human, and the better I understand cats, the better I can care for him. That’s why these discussions on PoC are important and relevant. The better we understand our cats, even as this means acknowledging that they are in many ways quite different from us, the better we can care for them. As we do so, there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in their behavior, no matter what their motivation. A cat scent marks his human and the human enjoys the physical contact with the animal. This is one of God’s good gifts. Being able to understand the motivation of the cat to do what he does, understanding his nature as a predator, to me, only increases the pleasure of living with a cat.

    • How interesting!
      Are instincts not the same as built in behaviour patterns Ruth? For example how does a new born human baby know to suckle his mother’s breast to survive? He isn’t old enough to think he must eat to live. Just like newly born kittens know exactly the same.
      Cats brains are very similar to ours and that’s why scientists use them in brain experiments to research illnesses like migraine. Very cruel! A cat can’t tell you how bad his headache is.
      No cats are not human and we are not cats so I think we will never truly know everything about them because how can we when we are not cats!

        • So it’s not an instinct either when a baby cries for attention? I don’t understand this, must learn more! 🙂

        • humans do not have instincts

          I think humans do have reflex actions and instincts. What about biting nails when anxious? Is that a reflex action and one that has origins in suckling? Or licking one’s lips when concerned while speaking? Not sure of the origin of that.

          • An instinct must happen every single time to be considered an instinct. I was taught in psychology courses that other animals have instincts but humans have a prefrontal cortex. You don’t need instincts when you have a more complex brain that can figure things out. Even if humans have instincts we are able to override them, and that may be nearer the truth. We can decide whether or not to act on an instinct, if we do have them at all.

            A baby crying isn’t an instinct it’s an expression of emotion. We do share emotions with animals and to me it’s very obvious that animals have emotions. But we also have entire areas in our brain that other animals don’t have, which give us the power to make choices animals cannot make– including the choice to commit evil acts. Aside from our prefrontal cortex our brains are so very similar. But the ability to choose our own path has been more of a curse than a blessing.

            • You are right Ruth, I think we are cursed that we can choose to be evil and that some people are.
              All animals are innocent yet they are abused by people who choose to abuse them. Ignorance can be excused, deliberate cruelty can not.
              So in a way is instinct more or less the same as reflex, doing something without thinking about it?

              • If you think about things animals have an instinct for– like caring for their young or birds flying south– it almost seems like it an inborn drive to do these things. Instincts can involve very complex behaviors, beyond a mindless reflex that happens without thought.

                Like a mamma turtle who knows just where to lay her eggs on the beach and the babies who never see their mother, yet know to head for the water and know how to find food. Those are instincts beyond anything seen in humans who have to be taught everything.

                Human babies have all kinds of odd reflexes that disappear when they get older. I remember from my pediatric physical therapist assisting class things about if you position an infant a certain way he will automatically react in the same way every time. It was something like laying the baby on his back with one arm extended and he always turns his head a certain way. There was also the reflex that if you stroke the bottom of a baby’s foot he curls his toes– the Babinski, I think it’s called. That one only shows up outside of infancy if someone has a spinal cord injury. But none of the reflexes human babies exhibit come anywhere close to the ability of baby turtles to be completely self sufficient the second they emerge from the egg.

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