You run hurriedly into the living room after hearing a loud crashing sound. As if he is on cue, your cat locks eyes with you before he darts out of the room.
Do cats feel guilty?
No, cats do not feel guilt. They are not capable of feeling guilty because it is a complex human emotion that is tied to human values.
For most cat owners, their pets are valued as members of the family. As such, it is not unusual to assign human emotions to your pet.
In fact, what you might be interpreting as guilt may be a different emotion. Like fear, anxiety, or frustration. And a cat that feels any of these emotions may exhibit a few signs like:
- Dilated pupils
- Ears peeled back to the head
- Tail wagging
- Running away
- Lowered voice
Why cats are incapable of feeling guilt
Most dog owners are quick to say that their pets can display signs of guilt. Cat owners, on the other hand, say that their pets never seem to show signs of guilt and remorse.
In order to explain why cats are not capable of feeling guilt, you need to understand that felines are not wired to recognize deep emotions in people just by looking at them. Cats are capable of knowing when their humans are upset but they cannot grasp more complex emotions like guilt.
When you scold a cat or dog, they do not show signs of guilt. Rather, they exhibit signs of anxiety by listening to the change in your voice’s tone. In response to that, a dog may change his facial and bodily expression which many people wrongly interpret as guilt. A cat, on the other hand, will simply get out of the room, as if he instinctively knows not to cross paths with you while you are still angry.
And although cats can experience a diverse range of emotions, from joy to anger, they are incapable of feeling sorry for what their humans think is wrongdoing.
What is guilt?
Guilt is a complex emotion that arises from self-consciousness and reflection, things that not all creatures are capable of doing.
Guilt is an emotional response after causing harm to another, whether real or perceived. And although the feeling is usually turned to one’s self, it also has a social component.
For example, when you have done something wrong to a person, the feeling of guilt drives you to make right what you have done and to prevent yourself from doing it again.
Although guilt is often seen as a negative emotion, it has positive benefits. These include encouraging remorse, driving one to make an apology, and acting properly. It can also help improve the bonds within a group.
Your cat is afraid but not guilty
When your cat runs out of a room after doing a misdeed, you might think that he is doing that out of guilt.
But the truth is, your cat might be cowering in fear after hearing you. Unfortunately, many people think that what they see is guilt or shame and not fear. To an untrained eye, the physical manifestations of these emotions may be hard to distinguish from one another.
Furthermore, many of the cat behaviors that pets exhibit have no malice behind them. Take for example when your cat scratches the couch. For him, scratching is part of his instincts. Destroying your furniture is not embedded in his DNA. What you may perceive as wrongdoing is something that is natural for your cat.
When your cat knocks items off the table, he does not do that simply to destroy your things. He does not understand the value of objects. What he understands is that when he does something, he gets your attention.
Another reason why cats are incapable of feeling guilty is that they have no understanding of what happens in the future because of their actions.
Cats live in the present and have no idea of what is the past or future. In order to feel guilt, you have to have the ability to look at what you have done in the past, whether that is recent or not.
How to train your cat to behave well
Your cat may not feel guilt but he can be trained to behave properly. Many cat owners do not train their pets because they think that unlike dogs, felines cannot be trained.
On the contrary, cats are perfectly capable of learning good behavior and even tricks. But before you train your cat to perform complex tricks, it is important to teach him good manners first.
1. Timing is key
If you do not want your cat to do a specific action, like knocking things off or scratching the couch, one of the most important things you should remember is that timing is crucial.
Specifically, you should tell your cat that he did something wrong after doing the deed. Remember, cats do not have a concept of the past or future, only the present. If you wait for a long time, your cat will not understand what you are trying to tell him. He will only be confused, or worse, scared.
But what if you come home and see that your pet has made a serious mess? Just ignore him and clean up the mess. If you want to make this a teachable moment for your cat, the opportunity will be long gone.
2. Use water to your advantage
If you catch your cat attempting to do something that you do not want him to do, you can spray him with water to stop him in his tracks.
Soon after, your cat will associate that behavior with getting wet and will eventually stop attempting to do that action.
3. Put your cat in isolation
Some cats learn that by doing some actions, they will get the attention of their owners. This is learned behavior and your cat will continue doing misdeeds if he gets what he wants: your attention.
The best way to prevent that is to either leave the room after the misdeed or move your cat and isolate him in another room.
4. Use positive reinforcement
Under no circumstance should you punish your cat physically. Not only is this inhumane. Worse, it can erode the trust that you have built with your pet.
Instead of punishing your cat, use positive reinforcement to get the behaviors that you desire from your cat. Every time your pet does something good, reward her with praise or even his favorite treats. Soon after, your cat will associate that action with a reward.
Felines are incapable of feeling guilty
If it looks like guilt it does not necessarily mean that it is actually guilt. Your cat’s body language may show some sense of shame or guilt but it is highly likely that you are reading his expressions wrong. What you might be seeing is a fearful cat afraid of the tone of your voice.
Image: istockphoto.com / Нина Дроздова