Apologies to Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, but the most interesting cat content online right now is a Snapchat filter that lets humans try on a feline face. The resulting clips are adorable, confounding, and a great example of just how little we know about cat cognition.
In a video compilation making the rounds online, cats look at a phone screen that shows their owners with a cat face filter. The cats whip their heads around to look up at the human, and then back to the screen. “It appears the cat recognizes that their owner’s face should be on the phone, but it is not,” Kristyn Vitale, who studies cat behavior at Oregon State University, said in an email to The Verge.
However, it’s particularly challenging to figure out what this behavior says about cats because we know so little about cat cognition to begin with, says Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, an animal behavior researcher and director of the Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College. “In cats, it’s as elusive as cats’ general personalities can be,” she says. That’s partly because they often don’t cooperate well in research studies, making data hard to come by. When a researcher tried to test if cats understood what it meant if someone pointed at where food was hidden, for example, multiple subjects wandered off from the testing site.
The video hints at some interesting questions about cat cognitive awareness. It might be a sign the cat recognizes its owner, Vitale said. But it isn’t a sign that cats pass the mirror test, despite what some people responding to the video seemed to think.
The mirror test is a key measure of self awareness for animal behavior researchers. It was designed in 1970 to figure out if an animal can recognize itself. When animals are introduced to a mirror, their first reaction is often an aggressive, threatening posture, Byosiere says. They first appear to think it’s another animal. “And then slowly, you see many start to interact with the mirror,” she says. In the test, researchers mark the animal with paint or a sticker somewhere they can’t normally see. If, when they look at the mark in the mirror, they try to touch it on their body, it’s a sign they recognize themselves as the animal in the mirror.
But in the videos, the cat isn’t looking at itself, it’s looking at a person. And the cat filters aren’t on a mirror — they’re on a screen, which can flicker in subtle ways, and might be visually different from a mirror to animals. Researchers have started to study how dogs respond to stimuli on a screen, and it seems that they recognize objects on the screen the same way they do in real life. “Because there’s not much research on cat cognition, we don’t know how cats interact with screens, or how they would perceive the properties of screens,” Byosiere says.
It’s also hard to draw conclusions from videos taken in an uncontrolled environment. “We can never really get at what the owner did beforehand,” she says. There’s no way to know if it’s the first time the cat has seen the filter, or if there’s something else going on in the background that gets their attention. “We don’t know if this context is unique, or if it indicates anything about how attentive cats are.”
The Verge’s deputy editor Elizabeth Lopatto tested the filter with her cat, Jeeves, with mixed results. Jeeves turned back to look at her face on the first try, but only after she spoke. And the second time, Jeeves — uninterested — jumped off her lap and wandered away.
Even if they can’t prove anything about how cats think, the videos are fun. “Most scientists and researchers really do like these videos,” Byosiere says. “If the cats are happy to do this, and it’s not disturbing them, great.” They also show that people are interested in learning why their cats behave the way they do, she says. “It’s exciting because then hopefully there’s room for people to do this type of research on cats.”