We don’t know if cats are self-conscious. We speculate. We are learning more about the domestic cat’s emotions. I’d like to think that cats have the ability to be self-conscious but at present I have my doubts. The article explores the possibilities.
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.
However, place a cat in front of a mirror and he sees another cat not himself. That obviously indicates a lack of self-consciousness. Tests using a mirror and placing a mark on the animal’s face tell us that bottle nosed dolphins can be self-conscious as can orangutans and chimpanzees, magpies and elephants.