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”.
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.
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“.