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
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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.


25 thoughts on “Do cats feel guilty when they’ve been bad?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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


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