Years ago, when I was 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 received lots of attention from viewers and got 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 of spending the night in the hotel room with the lucky kitty. Believe me, it was tough not to bring a whole clowder home!
One memorable kitty hated mirrors. Oy!
Why Cats Hate Mirrors
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 we chose her to make a television appearance.
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. Why do cats get freaked out by mirrors? It’s likely the eyesight issue made it worse, but many cats react to mirrors poorly. Cats often act scared of strange new things. Many of us smile at the picture of a cat looking in mirror and seeing lion—or in the above, a tiger. In a way, that’s exactly what cats may perceive.
CATS & MIRRORS
Why cats hate mirrors? Maybe you see a cat scratching at a mirror over and over again, or the cat’s tail “yelling” at that reflection. Yet we wonder why do cats ignore mirrors other times? 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 like windows can confuse inexperienced cats.
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. They also do this after watching TV images of birds or other critters, mistaking the screen for a window. Cats that fear other cats, or that want to chase away the “intruder” act out with aggression.
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 in the reflection, the cat perceives as a threat, raising the actual cat’s arousal. This becomes a vicious cycle. When cats become 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. 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.
Reducing Cats & Mirrors Fears
Each time a cat sees an upsetting reflection he practices being upset. Each repeat of a 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 or cling-plastic 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 were they? Did they outgrow the behavior or did it become a problem? How did you manage it? Cats also react to images such as high-definition screens like TVs and iPads as well. That can offer fun games if cats enjoy chasing the image.
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!