Can a cat distinguish between being hurt deliberately or accidentally? Cats are good observers. Humans know the difference between an accident and a deliberate act by observing the other person’s behavior and what they say. Cats can’t understand what we say but they can observe behavior and they can recognize the difference between a hostile person and a friendly person. This informs them as to whether they are hurt by accident or deliberately.
You accidentally step on your cat’s tail. She runs away and in quite a short space of time she returns and you cuddle her and apologise. Your demeanor indicates friendliness and she recognizes this. Does she understand that it was an accident? Not exactly but she knows that you are not hostile and she forgets it quickly.
You step on his cat’s tail deliberately because your are disgruntled and unhappy with your cat. Your cat slinks away and hides or retaliates if the relationship is broken. Eventually, the cat returns and you make up and are ‘friends‘ again. However, under these circumstances your cat might be wary of you because of your body language and background hostility which is the back story to the particular incident in which the cat is hurt.
A single deliberate act of violence against a cat by an owner is less likely than multiple acts in a household. A cat won’t know they are deliberate acts compared to accidents but she will now that the person is hostile. She can therefore distinguish indirectly between an accident and a deliberate act. A deliberate act of violence against a cat will not be forgotten so soon because the perpetrator’s attitude will persist after the event. It may train the cat which would mean it is not forgotten. She may associate the pain with what she was doing when it occurred. It may therefore prevent her from doing the same thing again whatever it might be.
However, I don’t believe that cats know the meaning of the word ‘accident’ or the phrase ‘deliberate act’. They don’t understand what an accident is. They just feel pain and that pain has come from their owner. This would be a hostile act which can be forgotten or the memory can persist depending on the circumstances.