Cats Are Incapable of Feeling Guilt

The emotion of guilt requires that a person is able to compare what she has done to the standards that she has set herself. It’s a comparison of our actions with reference to our moral standards. The emotion of guilt requires a degree of self-awareness. Whether or not cats can be self-aware, I think, is still work in progress but science is yet to confirm it. The same can be said about dogs and it is with dogs that we hear more about the “guilty look”.

A cat's guilty look
A cat’s guilty look. It is hard not to believe that this cat feels guilty about something. But the look is probably one of anxiety not guilt.
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Afterthought since writing this: cats have no reason to feel guilty! They never have a reason to feel guilty because their actions and behaviour is entirely natural and dictated by nature. It therefore must be “correct” guilt-free behaviour.

Lots of owners say that dogs looks guilty when they have done something wrong. A researcher did some work on this and found that a dog’s guilty look is, in fact, a figment of the owner’s imagination. The body language of the owner changes when she finds out that her dog has done something wrong and the dog reacts to that change in body language.

A researcher asked dog owners to command that their dog leave a food treat alone and not eat it and then they left the room. While they were out of the room the researcher encouraged the dogs to eat the treat. All the dogs look guilty, the owners believed, after they were told that their dog had stolen the treat. But it is not real. Is there an overlap in facial appearance between the classic guilty look and an anxious look? Perhaps this is where the guilty look comes from. The companion animal is anxious about what is to come judging by the demeanour of the person.

Cats and emotions
What UK owners think their cats can feel emotionally

I am sure that quite a lot of cat lovers will disagree with the study’s conclusion as almost 40% of cat owners believe their cat can feel guilt. The study is more or less stating that emotions such as guilt and pride require a higher level of cognitive sophistication than cats are able to possess. All that said, it is probably fair to argue that the study of cats and their emotions is still work in progress and I am sure that we will find more about the cat’s way of thinking in the future which will surprise us.

Associated: Elisa’s article on this topic written years ago.

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Source: Myself and the book “Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed“.

2 thoughts on “Cats Are Incapable of Feeling Guilt”

  1. I share your thoughts Michael. I don’t believe that cats suffer from guilt. Even if their thought processes were that complex, what would they have to feel guilty about?

    I’ve also read studies busting the “guilty look” dog owners talk of. In some studies the dog hadn’t done anything wrong, but the mere suggestion to the owners that their dog had been ‘naughty’ was enough for the owner’s body language and tone of voice to trigger a submissive response from the dog. Just as with cats, there are clearly areas of dog behaviour that many owners are unaware of. Animals are much better at reading body language than we are, which undoubtedly leads to miscommunication on many occasions.

    • I am pleased you agree 😉 The fact that humans feel guilt and cats don’t tells us something about the human condition. It is a plus point for cats over humans!


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