Cats & Mirrors

My reflection...

Cats become enthralled by their reflection–and sometimes it freaks them out! Image Copr. LemurEyes/Flickr

Years ago when I was on tour as the spokesperson for the Purina Cat Chow Way of Life Tour, we’d arrive in town the evening before and visit the shelter to choose a kitty for the next morning’s TV appearance. The “stars” almost always got lots of attention from viewers and were adopted. Understandably, shelter staff had their favorites and often urged us to choose a special feline that had less chance for a forever home. I had the delight to spend the night in the hotel room with the lucky kitty. Believe me, it was tough not to bring a whole clowder home!

One memorable time, the shelter volunteers urged us to take a “lifer” onto the TV show. This kitty had been there for several years, and probably couldn’t remember ever being on the “outside.” She’d had reconstructive eye surgery for a birth defect (problems with the eyelids) and had poor vision. But she was sweet and adored by the whole staff–so was chosen to make her debut on TV. That evening, when I opened the carrier door in the hotel room to allow her to stretch her legs, she got as far as the closet door, and FREAKED! The mirror reflection terrified her–that strange cat in the glass hissed at her, screamed at her, threatened to attack–and this poor cat hadn’t a clue what to do. It’s likely the eyesight issue made it worse, but many cats react to mirrors poorly.

CATS & MIRRORS

Cat face conformation—eyes at the front for binocular vision—lends itself to seeing reflections. But most times, a reflection doesn’t also have a strange odor or unique sounds attached, so for experienced cats, the reflection isn’t important or “real” without a signature odor or noises.

Other times, cats like my little shelter waif, develop problem behaviors from mis-recognizing their own reflection as a threat or playmate. Kittens that have less life experience are most likely to react to reflections before they realize they can’t reach that “cat behind the glass.” Some cats react to the reflections in pictures, oven doors, fireplace screens, or even tile. Mirrors and other reflecting surfaces can be confused with windows.

Cats often attempt to reach the other cat by pawing underneath or at the side of the mirror to “get around” the barrier preventing contact. Cats also do this after watching TV images of birds or other critters, mistaking the screen for a window.

EVIL CAT TWINS

The lurking outdoor cat presence primes the mirror-gazing kitty to become suspicious so his fearful reflection also triggers defensive body language. When the cat displays “friendly” body language, the reflection does the same and such interactions are less likely to cause problems. But a fearful or aggressive body posture is reflected back to the cat and perceived as a threat, raising the actual cat’s arousal. This becomes a vicious cycle. When cats are highly aroused they react rather than think, and it matters little that the reflection offers no scent or sound. Some cats learn to associate shiny surfaces/locations with feeling upset and these can trigger acting out behavior.

The interaction with the reflection runs the range from curious and playful, to head-thumping and screaming attacks. I’ve included a couple examples of milder reactions in the videos, below, but some cats become quite violent to the point they can injure themselves. This could also feed into cases of redirected aggression. In other words, the cat becomes hissed off by that “threatening cat” seen in the mirror, but can’t reach the interloper, and so instead nails a passing cat friend.

Each time a cat sees an upsetting reflection he practices being upset. Each repeat of a given behavior predicts more to come, and makes it more likely for it to continue. So what can a caring owner do?

    •  Remove mirrors if possible.
    • Move mirrors or problem reflective surfaces. A new location may not have the same associations.
    • Cover reflective surfaces you can’t move. Tape paper over cat-level mirrors, or spray-paint with temporary opaque color.

 

When you have one confident cat that ignores the mirror, play games and offer treats in the mirror-area while the upset cat watches. This can teach the upset cat that another feline has no fear, and can encourage copy-cat calm behavior. More tips for dealing with mirror angst or redirected aggression are in the ComPETability: Cats book.

Have your cats ever reacted to the mirror or their reflection in windows or other surfaces? How old where they? Did it become a problem? How did you manage it? As you’ll see in one of the videos, below, cats can and do react to images such as high-definition screens like TVs and iPads as well. How would you describe the kitten’s c’attitude in the first video? What about the second one?


 

I love hearing from you, so please share comments and questions. Do you have an ASK AMY question you’d like answered? Do you have a new kitten and need answers? Stay up to date on all the latest just subscribe the blog, “like” me on Facebook, listen to the  radio show, check out weekly FREE PUPPY CARE newsletter, and sign up for Pet Peeves newsletter. Stay up to date with the latest book give aways and appearances related to my  THRILLERS WITH BITE!


Comments

Cats & Mirrors — 14 Comments

  1. Amy – KC just had an incident with the mirror last night! To my knowledge it was the first time ever, and he’s is five years old. He wasn’t afraid or aggressive – he just wanted to get to that “other cat”. What’s interesting is that he had been watching videos made for cats on YouTube earlier in the day, so I wonder if that might have prompted his interest in looking out this particular “window”.

    • That is interesting Vicki, maybe the videos had “primed” him. How did he react to the videos–try to “find” the cats looking around the back of the tv/computer? I suspect cats somehow “get it” with the video stuff since they can circle around the image. But unless the mirror is on an open door they can circle behind, it really does look like a window. How does KC react to the fact that you also are in the mirror–and beside him as well? Wouldn’t it be fun to get a peak inside that little cat mind to understand really what’s going on?

      • He loved the videos – especially the ones of birds at a feeder. I had it set up on a laptop beside my work computer to keep him of my keyboard. He quickly learned that he could stand on the keyboard or it would pause the video. There’s a picture of him watching the videos on my G+ profile.

  2. Really interesting, Amy. I don’t know a lot about cats and thanks to features like yours, I am learning. I love all animals so I go to experts like you to help me engage and learn. I recently found out a wagging cat tail isn’t always a happy thing MOL!

  3. I had a lynx point Siamese mix who loved to admire himself in the bathroom mirror. He would sprawl out on the vanity, facing the mirror and stare at his handsome reflexion. He would also look at my reflection if I was standing behind him, and we would have conversations with all eye contact strictly through the mirror. He was a pretty amazing cat, right up until the very end.

    • That’s very cool, Carole. So he clearly had some sort of an understanding about the reflection. *scribbling notes* Siamese are very savvy kittehs (my Seren made me type that!).

  4. Another great interesting article. I experienced this the very first time the other evening with my one year old cat. He saw his reflection in the window glass. It was hilarious as he instantly hackled up his back, tail fuzzed up and he went sneaking up to it. Macy (my 9 year old orange tabby) has always chased and talked to light reflections from anything she sees reflecting on the wall or floor. When it is sunny and if anyone goes out my back door Macy gets up no matter where she is and goes to the back door and waits for the person leaving to turn around in the driveway. Once they turn around and start down the driveway some sort of light reflection shows up on the wall and she jumps up, stands on her back legs with front paws tapping and chasing that light all the way down the wall until she can’t see it anymore. Of course, she’s talking to it too. Same thing for my iPad – if it puts out a reflection on the floor or wall she’s talking to it and jumping on it. I have never had a cat do that and she’s so cute when she does.

    • Patricia, it seems to primarily be a “first time” issue with more experienced cats finally figuring it out. So the young cats (kittens especially) really get revved up. The light reflection is a whole ‘nuther thing–and the light chasing similar to what gets kitties going after those laser light pointers! Now, with dogs (and some cats) it can turn into an OCD so care must be taken…but when it’s not obsessive, it can be a fun game for our pets.

  5. I remember when I first took down the mirror from the living room wall to make way for a big DVD shelf. Simba had never taken issue with the floor-length mirror in the bathroom, so I suppose she was used to that one. So when I sat the wall mirror down in the other room for lack of anywhere else to put it, I didn’t figure it would cause problems.

    I started to notice a new habit of running into the livng room from down the hall, demanding my attention and meowing frantically. Then she would run back down the hall, and I would hear her cry from the other room. This kept repeating over and over, much to my confusion, until I followed her.

    There she was, staring at the mirror, looking vey distressed and yowling at me to do something.

    She thought I had brought another cat to replace her.

    *facepalm*

    I turned the mirror around to face the wall and she was fine from then on. LOL We have jealousy issues. 😉

    I love that first video. “Maybe if I look really scary that other cat will go aw– OH CRAP SCARY CAT! Okay, try again. OH CRAP SCARY CAT! Fine, maybe if I try to get it to play with me… maybe… uh… nope.”

  6. Oscar was terribly upset when he first noticed the full length mirror in our bedroom. He isn’t bothered by it now, but he was one frightened kitty at first.

    I regularly photograph him using a different mirror to capture him and he has never really been bothered by that one.

    Thanks for your post! I’ll look forward to reading the other readers’ comments too.

    • Brenda, what you describe about Oscar and what others have shared makes me think it’s not only the generic “mirror” but also the location and circumstances…what else is going on…that impacts the cat’s ignoring or interacting with the reflection.

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