Monday, January 08, 2007

Does my cat know she's a cat?

Who's asking: John Schramm, Tracy, CA

John Schramm says he thought to ask this question when he showed one of his pets its reflection in a mirror; he says the cat looked at himself for a moment, then tried to clamber.

Believe it or not, scientists have done a lot of research into this question of whether animals are self-aware, and showing animals mirror images of themselves is one way they do it. So far, the only animals that seem to be able to recognize themselves in a mirror are humans, great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans), dolphins, and elephants -- and even elephants can't do it, most of the time.

It's not even clear that what most animals see in a mirror looks like another animal to them. Cats and dogs see motion, more than anything else, and static images don't interest them. Dizzy adores Chris and Claire, for example, but doesn't pay any attention to photographs of them. He'd be much more interested in a tape recording of their voices, or in the smell of something they'd recently handled.

The deeper question here is whether cats and dogs have any idea of Catness or Dogness, and the answer is maybe. Cats, particularly, are predators, and predators divide the world into Prey and Predators, including things that might prey on them. Humans are neither, so cats seems to consider us either large and incompetent kittens (which is why they bring us their kills, since we're too feeble to be able to kill our own food) or intransigent tools.

Either way, it's rare for cat owners to say, "My cat thinks she's human," which is something you hear dog owners say all the time. In fact, this is backwards; a well-trained dog does not think it's human, it thinks humans are other dogs. Responsible dog training is based on the idea of adapting your dog's instinctive pack behavior to a pack of humans (or mixed humans and other animals). Dogs like order, and they want to know where they belong.

At the moment my own dog is damp and smelly, after a long walk in the pouring rain. He wanted to go, and I needed the exercise. At least it's not ice, which is what we were supposed to get this morning.


Claire said...

We also adore Dizzy. Great question and answer--I've always wondered about that.

JJ said...

Well, Charley (Dog) has been seeing himself in the mirror in my bathroom for most of a year now and yesterday he started growling at his refelection and came to get me, rather urgently, to show me that not only was there a dog in the bathroom other than him but when you went behind the mirror into the closet the dog wasn't there.

We spoke at length about this for awhile and then decided to get drunk and forget about it.

So far, he and the 2D newcomer seem to be getting along amicably. Or it could be the hangover.


AnswerGirl said...

Claire, Dizzy says you should come on over any time.

Jake, your dog is either very smart, or... not.