Cat Reactions to Mirrors (and How to Help)

White cat playing with mirror reflection.
Melissa Ross / Getty Images

Does your mirror cat reflection prompt kitty aggression and fearful behavior, or does your cat ignore mirrors? Cats know they're beautiful but their reaction to a reflection varies widely.

Who's That Cat in the Mirror?

Several years ago while touring several animal shelters, one of the kitties spent the night in my hotel room so we could make an "adopt this cat" TV appearance early the next morning. He had a bad reaction to the mirror. After one glimpse of his reflection, he immediately self-inflated, hissed, and drew back his ears--cat language for !@#$%^&*!!!--then hid under the bed.

Recently a reader's cat experienced something similar. Although the five-month-old kitten named Bengal previously had ignored his reflections, his reaction changed when an eight-week-old kitten came to visit.

Bengal hissed and growled at the kitten, so they were separated and the kitten moved to a different floor of the home. But when Bengal smelled a ball the kitten had touched, he shrieked like a bobcat and then became terrified of his own reflection in every and any surface; pictures, oven, fireplace, glass slider, even tile.

"Bengal's reaction is an instant shriek as if he is being eaten by a coyote and he slashes at the air with his claws. It terrifies our whole family. He used to follow me around the house all day, and now he retreats to the bedroom. This abrupt sudden change from such a sweet, playful and affectionate companion is upsetting."

Newbie Cat Reflection Reactions

What's going on? And why do some cats fear or attack their image while others ignore it? I wish that I knew the answer, but I do have some theories.

In the case of my hotel room kitty, he'd spent much of his life in the shelter and had never before seen a mirror. Actually, he'd never heard a radio or TV, felt carpeting under his toes or seen doors swing open and closed. Experience and what a cat accepts as "normal" influences reaction, including whether he ignores his reflection or reacts with stranger danger.

Making "Sense" of Cat Mirror Reactions

Bengal also is a youngster with less life experience than some other kitties. He'd already become aroused by the presence and smell of the kitten. Perhaps his reflection in the past never bothered him because 1) he didn't smell a stranger, and 2) his reflection was that of a happy cat (himself).

But this day his reflection was a scared/aggressive cat and that made him even more scared/aggressive/defensive. Once a cat "learns" that THIS plus THAT equals fear/upset/aggression, the cat often generalizes so he doesn't need to think in future. Just the sight of a shiny surface may be enough to upset tender kitty feelings.

Also, think about how cat senses differ from people. 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 the reflection isn't important or "real" without a signature odor or noises.

Cats that have seen (heard and smelled) other cats through windows may become upset at their own reflection, too. They often attempt to find the other cat by pawing underneath or at the side of the mirror to "get around" the barrier preventing contact. Cats may do this when they see TV images of birds or other critters, mistaking the screen for a window. The lurking outdoor cat presence primes the mirror-gazing kitty to become suspicious so his fearful reflection also triggers defensive body language. And seeing his own aggressive/fearful/defensive language in his reflection makes him think that cat-in-the-mirror means business, so he reacts accordingly.

Soothing Kitty's Reflection Reactions

How do you stop mirror-attacking cats? Cover up the mirror and reflective surfaces. Tape paper over cat-level mirrors. Each time he "sees" a reflection he gets to practice the behavior, and that makes it more likely for it to continue. If outside cats are amping up his reactivity, shoo them away with these tips.

Try creating a positive association with the mirror locations, using catnip or toys and treats. Pheromone products like Comfort Zone with Feliway may calm upset feelings, too. In time and with more experience, most cats can put mirror-angst behind them.