What Do Animals See in the Mirror?

Asian elephants, magpies, and great apes are among the species that can self-recognize.

Reflect on this: What do animals see when they look into a mirror?

Our Weird Animal Question of the Week came to us from @iscavenger, who tweeted us after reading our January column “Why Do Dogs Watch—and React to—TV?” She asked about domestic dogs’ responses to mirrors, noting that some seem bothered by or stare at the looking glass.

For one, though dogs can recognize other animals or dogs in mirrors, they can’t see themselves. (Take National Geographic’s dog quiz.)

“Dogs are very intelligent and adaptable creatures who, like countless others, lack the cognitive development necessary to self-recognize visually, whether in a mirror, on a video, or in a photo,” Liz Stelow, an animal behavior clinician at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital of the University of California, Davis, said by email.

Studies that have tested whether dogs could use mirrors as tools to find food or their owners had mixed results.

It’s not too surprising: Dogs evolved to communicate through scent, and smell is “more important for dogs than a visual recognition of ‘self,'” Stelow noted.