It may seem ridiculous to some people to discuss the emotion of embarrassment in relation to the domestic cat but I think it is worthwhile writing a short note about it as it is an emotion and cats feel emotions. It is just a question of whether cats feel the rather complicated emotion of embarrassment.
The truth is: I don’t know for sure, but my experience strongly tells me that they don’t. If they don’t it will be because they are more natural than the human animal. If they make a mistake, they see that as normal. Personally, I don’t think they see mistakes such as mistiming a jump as anything different from jumping perfectly.
If a cat makes a mistake in, for example, jumping up to a perch on a cat tree and falls off, I believe the cat relates to that in exactly the same way as making a successful jump because they are both cat activities and the cat does not relate to his activities in terms of success and failure as measured against societal standards. Only people do that. We are far too concerned with the concepts of success and failure and whatever they mean; usually how much money you have made.
Cats are capable of feeling emotions but perhaps the emotion of embarrassment depends on what we feel is a standard of performance expected of us and cats don’t have that expectation of performance from others and therefore don’t need to become embarrassed. (Michael)
Humans are highly concerned with how other humans perceive us, what they think of us. Cats don’t have these hang ups and insecurities. Cats can feel insecure but if they do it is about safety not what another cat thinks of him/her.
Bruce Fogle DVM, the celebrity UK veterinarian/author, writes that when some cats make a mistake they sit down and wash themselves. It has been said that this is a cat’s way of showing embarrassment. If it is, it is a very strange way of showing it.
Mr Fogle makes the point that when a cat grooms herself after a mishap is just a way of signalling that everything is normal. The signal is intended to tell potential predators of the cat that nothing has changed and the cat is neither weaker nor more vulnerable. If they do groom themselves, it is probably because they need it after falling!
The American Scientist website explains why people can become embarrassed and it supports what I have said above. They say that the root to embarrassment “is the anticipation of a negative evaluation by others”. We don’t want to undermine our social image and allow others to have negative impressions about us.
This then is about standards, social standards as created in human society. And how we measure up against those standards and how we look to other people.
Domestic cats simply don’t get anywhere near this. This kind of concern about one’s social image is entirely a human construction. As I mention above, cats are far more natural and don’t measure themselves against standards and therefore they are unconcerned about how other cats think of them.
It makes you wonder whether domestic cat in any way measure others and I think they do when it comes to procreation. I remember years ago writing about the topic of female cats being attracted to male cats and how they choose a mate.
Female cats will mate with some male cats but not others. They seem to be deciding that a certain male cat will produce more healthy offspring. How do they decide?
According to Dr. Bradshaw a cat behaviourist who wrote Cat Sense females measure a male’s health in terms of whether they can produce healthy offspring through the pungency of their urine. The smell of male urine can indicate whether he is a good hunter and therefore good at obtaining food for his family. Dominant male cats have been observed caring for kittens within their own colonies. They may share food. Dr. Bradshaw’s theory appears to carry some weight.
Note: this article was first published here almost 8 years ago. I have added a section, added to the title and republished it as at today’s date. That’s why the comments are dated as they are.