Do cats feel guilty about what they do?

Let’s say, a sausage disappeared from your table and you suspect that your cat is to be blamed. You look him up, and, after “exchanging” a few words, you are convinced. The cat has that guilty look. And it isn’t the first time.

A cartoon cat feeling guilty about breaking a vase

But what if we told you that cats don’t feel guilt or shame? Why would they? In order to feel guilty, one has to understand that he is doing something wrong.

For example, a Christian vegan may feel guilty about eating meat because they know it’s not in a accordance to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”

Should cats feel guilty about killing mice?

The thing is, cats were never informed about commandments and murdering or stealing being bad. Therefore, they slay innocent rodents without feeling bad about it. You don’t, as a matter of fact, think that mice feel bad about stealing our cheese. A cat who felt bad about murder wouldn’t last long in this world.

Equally, there is no reason that cats should feel bad about stealing our bratwurst, eating the top of our birthday cake, or peeing on the carpet.

Cats don’t think in right and wrong terms. If a carpet is the best place to pee, then it must be the best choice, in his opinion. And, if your cat feels something disturbing about it, that’s because he knows you will be mad.

“No, no, no, no, wait,” you must think. The cat definitely has that look; his eyes tell you he was up to something. What is going on here? Many people report their cats and dogs appear guilty when confronted with the evidence and lectured about their wrongdoing. That couldn’t happen for no reason. And it doesn’t.

Let’s take a look at humans. Have you confronted someone with evidence lately? If the person feels guilty, he most likely is guilty. If the person is not guilty, they might be scared, depending on how angry you are. Can you tell the difference between the two?

Here is an experiment to try. Go to your cat and start lecturing him about something that didn’t happen. For example, blame him for peeing in your slipper, even though it didn’t happen, or express how angry you are about him forgetting your birthday, or think of something else if that is what actually did happen.

If you do it genuinely, your cat will have that guilty look, even though he did nothing wrong. In reality, this is the look of fear and frustration, which, even in humans, are hard to tell apart from guilt.

Fear, frustration, and guilt appear similar

A study with dogs revealed that pet owners aren’t good at judging their dogs based on their guilty appearance. Dogs were instructed not to eat a treat, and, when the owners left, some dogs took the treat, but some didn’t. The owners were all told that their dogs actually took them and were allowed to “talk” about it with their pets. Two things were revealed: 1. Guilty dogs did not appear more guilty; 2. Dogs who were scolded more intensely appeared more guilty.

The study concluded that pets show guilt-like signs because of their owner’s reaction, rather then their misconduct. There is very little doubt about the outcome if a similar experiment would be repeated with cats.

The thing to note is that shaming or punishing a cat for doing something wrong can actually make the situation worse. Let’s say your cat pees on a carpet, and you yell at him. Or beat him. He must be guilty. If he isn’t, why did he run away?

Meanwhile, the cat may conclude that peeing in the middle of the room isn’t safe and go behind your couch next time. And, since it will take longer for you to clean up, think about it. Was it the guilt that made him do so? No, it was fear.

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