Fey uses mirrors. Two of them. At once.

So there's this test they do that supposedly tells you how self-aware an animal is. And it involves trying to see if they recognize themselves in mirrors. The test is usually done with very little thought for the idiosyncrasies of each species. And there's also this widespread idea related to this, that cats don't use mirrors at all.

Fey uses mirrors. In particular, she uses the bathroom mirrors to look behind herself without having to turn around. I know she knows what a reflection is, because she doesn't just use mirrors to stare at me. If she hears me make a sound when I'm not in her field of vision, she is at least as likely to look for me in the mirror as to turn her head around and find me.

If there is so much as a kitten in the house, Fey flips her shit. She sometimes becomes almost like a cat who has never been exposed to humans. She knows that reflections reflect things and people that are in the room, or she would never turn to the mirror to investigate sounds behind her. She doesn't respond to her own reflection by becoming a growling hissing spitting sharp pointy puffball, so it is a pretty good bet that she knows her reflection is her. Much better bet than you can get in a lab.

Today I was able to get three of my best ever photos of her using the bathroom mirrors to look at me. Two of them are pretty straightforward. But in the third one she's doing something I've wanted to get evidence of for ages: She's using two mirrors at once to look at me — looking at the reflection of my reflection.

So here come the photos. A description will be under each photo. Fey herself is a 13-year-old grey tuxedo cat with yellow-green eyes, mostly white whiskers, barely visible tabby markings in places, and silvery tips to most of her fur.

Here is the tall thin mirror on the bathroom door. Fey is visible only in the mirror, where she is sitting on the floor and staring straight at my eyes (and hence the camera).

Here is the big mirror over the sink, seen at an angle. Fey is standing on the sink, mostly facing the mirror. Her head is barely turned to the side, and her reflection is staring directly into my eyes.

This is a more complicated picture. The camera is pointed at the mirror on the door. Reflected in that mirror is the sink, with Fey on the sink facing away from the camera. Also reflected is the mirror over the sink. In the mirror inside the mirror, you can see Fey's reflection. That reflection of her is staring straight at the camera.

For some reason Fey's use of mirrors sometimes scares people. I remember a caregiver walking into the bathroom and then backing out of there fast with her hand on her chest, breathing hard and looking like she'd seen a ghost. I asked what was the matter and she said “Your cat. Was STARING. At me. In the mirror. CATS. DON'T USE. MIRRORS.”

That is the most dramatic response she's ever gotten. But people do get startled a lot. I'm not sure quite what it is they're alarmed by, although sometimes I get a “Hey wait a minute, why is there a cat looking at me from a spot no cat could possibly be?” moment. So maybe that's a big part of it.

Another part could be that most people don't expect cats to have the cognitive skills to use mirrors. And I've found that when someone displays cognitive skills they're not expected to have, people witnessing it sometimes react as if something supernatural in an intensely wrong way has happened. Like the point in a horror flick where the scare chord happens.

I've had people react to me that way before anyway. One time I evebhad a caregiver who had nightmares where the only terrifying element was that I could speak again. And I've seen people react that way to other disabled people who suddenly show awareness or other skills they're “not supposed” to have. What that says about people's attitude towards disabled people and cats, I'm not sure I want to find out.

Regardless, I'm really happy I got these pictures finally. It's hard to be on the toilet, holding the camera, at precisely the moment that Fey decides to look at me in the mirror. But this time I did. And I finally have proof Fey can use two mirrors at once to stare at people.


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4 responses to “Fey uses mirrors. Two of them. At once.

  1. Pingback: A reminder that I have a cat blog. « Ballastexistenz

  2. I think it depends on the cat. Some cats can use mirrors, some can’t. It may depend on their experience with the mirror, as well as their own abilities. I have seen cats who freak out at mirrors as if it were another cat. My own cat just completely ignores them, so I’m not sure about her. (She hates *unfamiliar* cats, but not cats she’s grown used to, so it’s possible she thinks the reflection is another cat but is used to it.) I tried to do the standard mirror test with her, stciking something on her forehead, but she wasn’t interested in the mirror at all (she wanted to cuddle with me).
    Fay does seem to be exceptional in her use of mirrors, I think. One thing that bugs me about research into the cognitive abilities of other species is the assumption that all animals of the same species have the same abilities. Like humans, other species have individual variation in their cognitive skills. The basset hound I babysat for a month was *much* smarter than my own lab cross, for example. (When we tried to get her to find treats by smell-tracking, she quickly figured out what we wanted despite never having done this sort of thing for humans before.)

  3. MicheleMM

    I read this entry about cats and mirrors with a great deal of interest. Till now I haven’t paid a lot of attention to my cats around mirrors. This morning my youngest cat, about 6 months old, was sitting on the bathroom counter in front of a large mirror, and I was standing behind him. I moved my hand up and across, and watched him track the movement of the hand in the mirror. It surprised me, but he did not turn around and look at me, he saw in the mirror instead. I’m going to see if any of my other cats do this, I have four.

  4. My kitten, when we moved a string behind his head while I was holding him in front of a mirror, he turned and looked at the string. He could have seen it in peripheral vision, I suppose, but he did track the string’s reflection a little, *then* looked at the real string.

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