Are Cats Self Aware?

The experts say that cats are not self aware. I thought that I agreed with them. But a friend of mine said that she thought they might be. In any case it depends on what you mean by “self aware”. To me it means being aware of oneself as an individual, sentient living creature. It is similar to sentience (to feel, perceive or be conscious, or to have subjective experiences) but different. The Wikipedia authors say that it is the ability “to reconcile oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals”.

This is a really tough question and maybe it is a question that is somewhat pointless! However, I would quite like to know what visitors thought about it based on their experiences. Does your cat give you the impression that he or she realises that they are an individual; that they exist?

For example, when cats look at themselves in a mirror they don’t seem to recognise themselves. We look at ourselves in a mirror and think, “Uhmm, I look nice today!”. Or, “does my bum look big in this?” But cats look at the mirror and seem to have no awareness of what they are looking at. Cats never look at themselves in reflections. Whereas we are a little bit obsessed about our appearance. There is quite a contrast in behaviour, in this regard, between cats and humans. Which is the better behaviour?

A follow up point is this. Does it matter? If cats are not self aware perhaps life is better. As humans we are self-aware but because of our nature we tend to convert this into self-consciousness. If one is too self-conscious it can have a negative impact on how we live. Not being self-aware promotes self-confidence and naturalness. Cats are very natural in their behavior. Their behavior is not qualified by an internal discussion on the subject of how they will be seen or thought of in the eyes of others. Cats just do it, if it is natural to do it. We love them for that.

You may have heard of it – the mirror test. I refer to it here. Wikipedia discusses it too. Apparently children to the age of 18 months fail the mirror test. While a barn owl named Wesley passed it! Some primates pass it and some fail it. Gorillas pass it and are declared to be self aware.

If you don’t have a conscious understanding of the fact that you exist – if it does not enter your head – then life is simplified. A whole range of issues are cut out of life. You will act more naturally. Try it out!

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Are Cats Self Aware?

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Dec 01, 2011 Self aware to a point
by: Ruth (Monty’s Mom)

Monty as a kitten thought there was another cat in the mirror. Once he saw that other cat with HIS toy mouse in its mouth and started huffing, puffing and finally growling at it. He was not able to perceive that the cat in the mirror was himself with his toy mouse in his own mouth. But now that he’s older, Monty ignores mirrors. He knows it’s not another cat. Does he know it’s him? Maybe he does and just doesn’t react in any way that would tip us off to that fact. Can you imagine a cat checking to see if he looks fat? He wouldn’t care. Every cat knows he is perfect just the way he is.

Monty is self aware in that he has preferences and desires. He’d rather be outside right now, but I’m not in the mood to keep an eye on him so he can’t go out right now. He is making his desire to go out known. He arranges the furniture in his own room. He moves his little tent bed around. He moves the mat I put his food dishes on. I used to keep putting things back, but I stopped doing that. It’s his room, he can put things where he wants them, just as I put my things where I want them.

Being self aware means more than just knowing it’s you in a mirror. I think it’s also about preferences and being able to articulate those preferences.

If a being were not self aware the same action would be repeated every time in response to a specific stimulus. Monty responds differently every day. Sometimes he chases the squirrel, sometimes he just watches him. Sometimes he will retrieve a little stick I throw outside, other times he’ll chase it or maybe just ignore it. It’s just the same as when you sometimes feel like playing one game, but other times something else will catch your interest.

Monty can also manipulate me to a very high degree. His pitiful meows for food, which precisely imitate his kitten meows when he was weak and starving, the loud purr to tell me he wants some of that, the way he walks toward the kitchen to show me where the food is and the way he’ll stare at me– all behavior calculated to get food. (All behaviors that will take place when he has a full belly already!) But in order to be so aware of what will make his human feed him, isn’t that evidence of very high intelligence on his part? If he’s so able to pull my strings to get what he wants I’d say that means he is also self aware.

Dec 01, 2011 My thoughts
by: Ruth

I think cats are self aware up to a point. For example if our 2 cats are in a room together and I say something to Walter, he looks at me, Jozef doesn’t
I say something to Jozef, he looks, Walter doesn’t !!
Cats know their own name !
Also they learn about other cats by scent and leave their own scent behind for other cats to know they’ve been there.
They must be aware of doing that.
Cats can learn everything about another cat by simply reading his scent.
I think cats are far more intelligent than we will ever know but because we don’t speak the same language some people think they are inferior to us.

Kattaddorra signature Ruth

Until September 7th I will give 10 cents to an animal charity for every comment. It is a way to help animal welfare without much effort at no cost. Comments help this website too, which is about animal welfare.

Dec 01, 2011 Typo gremlins again.
by: Grahame

Oh crikey! Typo gremlins again. For unselfawarness read unselfawareness; for Macharshi read Maharshi.

Dec 01, 2011 “Who are you?”
by: Grahame

As I never tire of telling you, Michael, you just never fail to raise interesting subjects.

Two things come immediately to my mind:

1. Cats do differentiate themselves from other cats. At least I think that they do: when I have had a lot of cats at home, they all seem to do so. I think that this demonstrates some self-awareness inasmuch as, even if this is based on, say, pheromones, still the cat differentiates its own from others’, self from other.

2 Your litle discussion of unselfawarness reminds me of Buddhist discussions of egolessness and no-mind doctrines.

Sri Ramana Macharshi used persistently to pose the question: who are you? Try it. Attempts to answer this usually devolve into an infinite regress.

BTW, Michael, sometimes the comments are taking HOURS to load. This has been my experience and that of several acquaintances.

11 thoughts on “Are Cats Self Aware?”

  1. A cat being a cat probably walks past the mirror, glances at the mirror, sees its reflection and thinks to itself, “yeah, that’s me” and carries on. This would be especially true if humans were in the room trying to prove the cat wasn’t self-aware by the mirror tests. Cats are like that! All the mirror test can tell you is whether or not the subject recognizes itself in a mirror. How often in nature does the concept of a mirror show up? Now, as it happens, one of my cats used to stare at the TV if I had a camcorder plugged in and stuck in the cat’s face 🙂

    • Thanks John. My personal experience tells me that when cats look at themselves in a mirror they don’t see themselves. They may see another cat.

  2. I know my story about the collar could be mistaken for an anecdote and by no means do I think cats are fully self aware, but it really seems like it sometimes, the mirror test should not be enough or not the only way to make a judgment on self awareness, I think with some animals other procedures may need to be used,it might need to be species oriented, some animals look at other animals or situations very differently.

    • I agree with you and I also believe that we have a long way to go before we fully understand animals and give them due credit. We underestimate them. We are improving but we have a legacy ignorance and arrogance with respect our relationship with animals.

  3. We put a collar on Fritter when he was a kitten, after a few months he started pulling it off, at first it was once or twice a week then sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, one time he was in the hallway I watched him pull the collar off as I started to go pick it up he ran a few feet away and then turned looked at me then at the collar, came back grabbed it in his mouth ran past me, we did not find the collar for a couple years. so was it self aware of him to make the connection to come back for the collar and then to hide it so I could not put it on him again?

  4. Agreed, she may be just testing the waters, BUT her behavior is so beyond what most cats typically do (attack or attempt to play with their reflection). She’s carefully studying the reflection, AND has at least shown that she has enough intelligence to test whether her movements are being reflected. Whether or not she’s realized that it is herself, we honestly can’t be sure of (she MAY have, and just been like “oh, ok… that’s NOT another or different cat.” Or perhaps “Is that ME, doing that?”). You’d think though, that since she seems to realize that her movements ARE being reflected, as she clearly goes out of her way to extend both paws, then mostly just the right paw, specifically and deliberately, (that at least to us humans), the only conclusions left, would be, “that’s me in the mirror…I just moved my right paw, and the image before me is moving exactly in line with it.” One thing I think has certainly been shown here, and that this is one pretty smart cat…

    • BUT her behavior is so beyond what most cats typically do

      I agree that. It is very unusual. I get your point. It is very close to evidence of self-awareness. I firmly believe there is more going on in the cat’s brain than we realise.

    • Thanks Michael. Excellent. Fascinating video. The cat seems to be testing what he is seeing in the mirror to check if it is him. His moves his paw and looks in the mirror to see if his paw moves in the mirror. That is what it looks like to me. I am not sure it proves that cats are self aware though. In fact he looks confused. If he knew it was a reflection of himself he would not be confused.

  5. Some of the above comments make sense to me, my cat knows he is the one in the mirror, if he didnt he would hiss and growl at it and would probably attack it, the fact hes not interested in staring at himself tells us more about the fact that many scientists fail to think logically and wish to intepret other animals behaviour by a set of rules based upon human psychology, it seems like they need to get out of the box and think a bit bigger. My cat knows what he wants and has unique noises he makes when he wants certian things. Play toy = meeew, Want food = meow, want nicer food = prrr meow, irritated because you stopped me doing something I like = ppppprrrrr, pppppprrrrrr, etc etc…

    We still for the most part regard ourselves as the most intelligent animals on earth but some apes can solve puszzles which make humans look dumb, maybe we need to smarten up.


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