Do cats feel guilty when they’ve been bad?

Can cats feel the emotion of guilt? Most cat companions have experienced this: you leave the room, and soon you hear the sound of breaking glass. When you investigate, your cat is standing in front of your favorite collectible looking VERY guilty.

Guilty Cats

Guilty Cats. Collage by Elisa

So, do you believe cats feel guilt, or do they simply respond to certain stimuli and respond to the emotions put out by their owner? I’ve done a bit of research on the subject of cat guilt, and cat owners are in agreement that cats do feel guilty when they do wrong.

I believe it goes deeper than emotion. Guilt would have to be a learned response. It’s like the question of “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around, does the tree make a sound?” A cat won’t associate guilt with breaking cherished items belonging to his human servant unless an unwanted response is directed toward the cat at the time the incident occurs.

I learned the hard way after Furby came to us that I needed to pack up any of my collectibles I didn’t want broken. I was a collector of a pattern called English Rose. I had miniature oil lamps and the sugar and creamer set and various other pieces.

Furby expressed interest in my fine china collection by scooting it over to the edge of the shelf and pushing one of the pieces right off. He appears to enjoy watching things fall and hearing them shatter. Now that my statues, china and cookie jars live in a steamer trunk, Furby must entertain himself by knocking down any pans he finds on the kitchen counters.

The thing is, he didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong until I ran into the kitchen flapping my arms and having a conniption. He gave me one of his big-eyed stares and ran out of the room, most likely trying to figure out what he’d done wrong.

We also have to be very careful with the large dry kibble cat food bags. Not with Furby, but with his adopted cat mama Lola. I buy the giant size bag (around 17 pounds), and usually purchase a month’s supply at a time. Only one bag can come into the house, and it must be emptied into the large feeding receptacle. If not, Lola knows how to use her claws to scratch her way into the bag.

I’ve always said that as long as a bag of their food is in the house, Lola will make sure all the cats are fed. Here’s a short video of Lola clawing her way into the bag.

Lola, much like Furby, knows this is unacceptable behavior, but doesn’t care. They may feel guilt, but it doesn’t stop the behavior. Which is why we found it easier to adjust to the cats than to force the cats to adjust their behavior to what we desired from them.

Our Sammy, who predicted the South Carolina earthquake, would break into any cabinet to get to Sealy’s special packs of wet food. He also has the ability to distinguish which grocery bag the wet food is in when it’s brought inside. We now have to store that food in a clothes dryer that no longer works. We now experience a stampede of cats whenever they hear the dryer door being opened.

Sammy doesn’t express guilt over hijacking a pack of food. He expresses his guilt by running away from the food when he can’t get to it. He also appears angry that we’ve outsmarted him.

Do any readers have a cat who shows guilt after being caught doing something you really wish they wouldn’t do? Please leave a comment.


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Do cats feel guilty when they’ve been bad? — 25 Comments

  1. Thanks to the article Elisa. This is a very interesting and at the same time tricky subject. We don’t know enough about cat emotions. We know that cats feel emotions. Their brain, after all, is very similar to ours. The question is whether they feel the emotion of guilt.

    Wikipedia says that people feel guilty when they have broken their own standard of conduct or of morality. If that is correct then in order for a cat to feel guilty he has to have a standard of conduct and the standard of morality.

    Standards of morality are a human concept. Is that correct? The question of whether a cat can have a standard of conduct, namely, a personal standard of conduct which he or she feels he must adhere to, is a tough question.

    It may be the case that when a cat looks guilty it is because the cat is aware that the person is angry or upset which makes the cat feel anxious and that facial expression is similar to the expression of guilt.

    The difficulty I have is that do cats feel bad when they do something which may annoy us?

    • Michael,

      I am positive that the look you describe is fear! I also think that some people who appear to look guilty- may be afraid as well.Some people are incapable of feeling guilt- sociopaths for example- they are just afraid of being caught doing something that is wrong. While others may feel shame- for having done something “wrong” or what they consider “stupid”.

  2. There is one sentence in this article that sums up the whole essence of sharing our lives with cats for me and it’s “Which is why we found it easier to adjust to the cats than to force the cats to adjust their behavior to what we desired from them.” Wise words indeed and enough of a mantra to be really all that a new cat carer needs to know to get started on their road to purring perfection. Put the valuables away, make the house cat friendly, realise that cats don’t and needn’t care about the things we care about, they don’t do guilt, they don’t make promises, they just “be cats” and that’s why we love them so much.

  3. My beautiful Victorian living room has now become a kitty romper room. It’s entertaining to watch the cats play once anything that would distress me if broken was packed safely away. I doubt whether there’s even one person out there who loves a cat who hasn’t lost a collectible.

  4. I took this of Furby tonight. He almost always has a guilty expression and I take full advantage of it. Every now and then I get an innocent expression but it’s difficult. Anytime we hear a crash we know he did it.

  5. Guilt is a human emotion that seems to have been passed on to dogs. Of course, that could be fear and not guilt. Hard to say. But a cat feels no guilt. I think instead, if they push a glass off the counter and it crashes, they feel pretty darned proud of themselves because, they knew you would come running. If they accidentally break something, they wonder what foolish human put it in their way. If you were to yell at her, that would be the end of your relationship with the cat. Cats are wise beyond our silly emotions of guilt.

    Furby is very beautiful.

    • DW so true!

      We so need to be careful not to erode our cats’ trust in us by yelling at them or punishing them. Positive reinforcement always works extremely well. By doing so we build that crucial bond of trust.

      When I am feeding the kitties, Sir Hubble Pinkerton used to jump on the sink where I was preparing their food. It drove me up the wall!! With patience and consistency I was able to teach him the word “wait.” Now he sits on the floor by the sink and waits patiently for me to give him his food. I keep reinforcing this behavior with lots of praise and pats at the moment I put the dish on the floor and both of us are pleased with the result!

  6. I don’t think that my cats feel guilt.
    What I think may happen is that they are aware that some actions will elicited a response from me. In that way, it may be attention seeking behavior and on purpose.
    I, wholeheartedly, believe that Damon is that way. When he has stolen or shredded something, he will, often, just sit in front of me and look up at me with a look that I’ve learned to interpret as “Guess what I just did, Mom?” It sets me into motion, and we interact a lot. He likes this.

    I love Lola and the bag. Same here. I have to dump kibble into a big plastic bin with a lid. Then, the empty bag is just up for grabs.

    Like you, Elisa, anything that I really value is tucked away somewhere.
    I realize that anything else here isn’t really mine. I’m just the purchaser.

  7. Cats feel guilty? I don’t think so- Cats always think that what they are doing is right.. they have their own “value system” and their behavior is based on their needs.

    When cats behave in a manner that is not appropriate according to humans, -for instance using the bathroom carpet to poop on- it is more than likely done because the human didn’t clean the litter box, and cats hate “dirty” toilets in the same way that we do. It can also mean that something has upset them- or they need medical attention if it continues without “reason”.

    The reason that cats may “appear” to feel guilt when they are “scolded” and cower in the presence of their human, is that they are afraid, and the trust for their human has started to be eroded.

    I found an excellent article on this very question.. it is well worth the read.

    Another “pet peeve” of mine is cats punish us for what they perceive to be “unacceptable” behavior- such as peeing in a suitcase when their human has returned from a trip- often this behavior is simply marking their territory if they feel insecure.

    Cats are unconditional! They don’t punish us.. they don’t have the capacity to feel guilty. Cats never do anything that has a reason- a reason they feel is justified- like stealing a turkey off a dining room table because it smells yummy. After all- their human must have left it there for them:) LOL

    • Love it Jo! After I lost two expensive pieces to Furby I pulled out the trunk and Laura and I packed up everything breakable that would upset me. I don’t really miss having it out because the cats are so entertaining to watch as they nap on the case that used to hold them and eat and sleep on the kitchen bar that used to show off my heavier pieces. Furby can move heavy too.

      When I’ve done home visits to place a cat and it’s that persons first cat I always look around the room and tell them what needs to be put in a safe place or be broken. That way they’ve been warned.

      • Elisa,

        You had me laughing! Now Dr. Hush Puppy is a scientist who has been studying gravity for many years. In fact recently he won the distinguished Excellence in Science award for his research.

        What he has been trying to discover is if different objects fall at different speeds when pushed off a coffee table, dresser drawer, sink, or kitchen counter. He has been studying this carefully, making notes about each object with which he experiments.

        So I think by now he one of the leading experts in the art of shoving objects onto the floor:)

        • Furby also studies gravity. Unfortunately he studies it by rolling office of things while he naps. Microwave, TV, kitchen table…

  8. Cats don’t feel guilty and why should they, they are never ‘bad’ cats, they are just doing what cats do. They didn’t ask to live in houses where people have valuables and as Babz so rightly said we should make our houses cat friendly, they have no idea of the value of material possessions. It’s people who are bad if they blame cats for being cats. Cats don’t understand the concept of punishment, they can learn to live alongside us by kind and gentle ways of teaching them ‘acceptable to human’ behaviour and we shouldn’t expect any more than that from them.
    If a cat is yelled at for being a cat then the look they give isn’t guilt, it’s fear and bewilderment as to why the person is being unpleasant, why their tone of voice has gone angry or loud.
    That cats are so misunderstood is heart breaking!

  9. I finally got some normal deep sleep post my Cipro poisoning last night and then Monty kept waking me up from about two until five a.m! I really didn’t need his interference with my sleep.

    But he does not feel guilty about it. He needed his momma. She wouldn’t wake up. He had to keep trying. He needed me.

    Cats do what they feel they need to do. There is no guilt, but maybe fear if their human is angry and they can’t figure out why.

    Now Monty’s trying to sleep so my husband keeps petting him, waking him up. Turn about is fair play. Monty just wakes up, purrs, then goes right back to sleep.

  10. Do cats feel guilty? Ha! That’s a laugh! Not only do they not feel guilty, I don’t think they have an ounce of shame about much of anything! They KNOW exactly what they are doing and it doesn’t bother them a bit because….they are smarter than we are and they just put up with us because…..they have problems opening up cat food cans by themselves.

    My cats, “Twinkles” and “Daffodil”, (two rare Balinese, a Lavender Point and a Flame Point) “Begonia” and “Geranium, (my Bengals )”Footsie”,(a cross-eyed Siamese with extra toes, who is soon to turn 19) “Melody” (another Bengal)and “Newton”, my only male (a Serengeti), have no loyalty. I know they refer to me as “The Cat Opener” behind my back.

    And whenever something gets broken, something gets shredded, something gets knocked over, Newton gives me one of his famous “Now you don’t think I had anything to do with this, do you?” looks that is classic.

    Do cats feel guilt? YEAH! FIGHT! When the Pope marries a Jewish girl in Utah…

    • Thanks Sacrlett for sharing your views. I tend to agree with you. I don’t believe cats feel the emotion that we call “guilt”.

      You have some fancy pedigree cats as companions. I am very impressed.

    • They may have problems with cans, but mine have no problem with the Whiskas Purrfectly Chicken packets. Sammy used to climb into the cabinet and snatch a pack and run off with his treat and get where we couldn’t get to him.

  11. Dear human servants. I saw mama had written this and I have to give my side of the story. I was born to a feral mama cat in the middle of nowhere and had to fight to find food. Mama rescued me and took me home and she promised she’d do ANYTHING she had to to make the rest of my life happy. That includes breaking things I like to hear shatter. Have you ever felt the anticipation of pushing something near the edge of the counter and giving that final nudge that sends it over the side? It’s very musical when an object hits the floor and glass goes all over the place.

    Since mama has put everything important up, I’m left to steal food or play chase with my cat roomies.

    I want to apologize for looking guilty in my pictures. I get into less trouble to look guilty all the time. I still try to look innocent in my pictures, but I fear my face has frozen into a guilty expression. What REALLY happens is the flash bounces off my eyes and mama has to fill my eyes in with her photo editor.

    Yes, I’m the cat equal to being airbrushed.

  12. lols that cheered me up sooo much. Its amazing waht a good laugh can make you feel when your feeling sad. I do know my cats do that sometimes esp Ozzie when he gives looks and Rebel is good at that when hes demanding dinner or wanting me to walk with him out to the kitchen

  13. Our late mother who absolutely worshipped cats, would say ‘Cats have no morals and never feel guilty’ lol
    She’d say to us we should be more like cats, not about morals but about guilt, because ‘guilt is a wasted emotion’
    Between her wisdom and the wisdom of a dear old vet I worked for I learned a lot about cats.

    • I think your mother is right, Ruth. Also guilt is a complicated emotion. The cause of it is not always clear. I don’t believe cats are that complicated. The keep things simple, which is good.

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