Who is That Doggy in the Mirror?

By Bonney Brown

When we humans look into a mirror we immediately recognize ourselves. Most children can recognize themselves in the mirror by their second birthday. Psychologists used to view self-recognition in a mirror as a major feat of consciousness and an important hallmark of self-awareness. Research shows that chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins and magpies also recognize themselves in a mirror. Yet most dogs and cats seem to ignore their images in a mirror. So, does this mean that they have no sense of self?

Dogs’ and cats’ eyes are substantially different from ours and as a result they see the world differently. They also differ from us in the ability to detect scents. A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times better than ours. That’s pretty impressive, but dogs are even more sensitive with a sense of smell that is 1000 times better than ours.

University of Colorado biologist Marc Bekoff recognized that dogs are considerably less affected by visual happenings and more affected by scents than are humans. He set about demonstrating self-awareness in dogs through a five-year experiment with his dogs and their own urine deposited in snow.

Cats mark objects by rubbing their faces against them to leave their scent and anyone who has ever walked a dog knows how eager most dogs are to read “p-mail,” as Dr. Marty Becker calls it. The most important sense for dogs and cats is not sight, as in humans and primates, but smell, so perhaps in scientists were barking up the wrong tree by relying upon a visual test alone to determine self-awareness in animals.

“What is important to us is not the same to them,” wrote James Lautner of the Pussington Post. “When they see themselves in the mirror they don’t say ‘how cute I look, I hope that other cat will fancy me.’ Their image seen by themselves doesn’t have the significance that our image has to us.”

To those of us who live with dogs and cats, it’s really not surprising that dogs and cats recognize themselves (and others) by their scent.

As writer Will Cuppy once observed: “If an animal does something, we call it instinct; if we do the same thing, for the same reason, we call it intelligence.”

Events that Help Animals

Nevada Humane Society’s Blue Jeans Ball on November 16, 5:30 pm, at Atlantis Casino Resort to benefit homeless pets. Mayors Cashell and Martini honored. Festivities include formal dinner, dancing, silent and live auctions, raffles! Live entertainment by Nashville’s country superstars, Whiskey Dawn. More info and tickets available at http://www.bluejeansball.org.


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