Do cats know when they are doing something wrong?

Do cats know when they are doing something wrong? I am referring to domestic cats. This is a philosophical question and as I am not a philosopher I’ll employ common sense as I see it.

Have I done something wrong?
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Photo: Ellen Fleischer

The first point to make is that the question refers to “doing something wrong”. This in fact means that the cat is doing something which displeases the cat’s owner. The cat is not doing something wrong per se but simply doing something wrong in the eyes of the owner. If the cat is not doing something wrong vis-a-vis his natural behaviour then he won’t know that he is doing something wrong because is not doing something wrong! If he is scalded he won’t show guilt but fear.

So the question really is whether a cat learns that something that he does displeases his owner. And the answer to that is that cats do learn that somethings can upset their owner. They don’t learn this through administering punishment because punishment is unsuitable for a domestic cat and indeed any animal. I have discussed that many times.

However, my cat does know that he displeases me when he bites me! He has stopped doing it now but when he was young and impetuous he would occasionally bite my ankles or my hand. Through my demeanour and the way that I spoke to him afterwards he understood that I disliked it. I also employed, to the best of my ability, positive reinforcement training to train this “bad behaviour” out of him.

It wasn’t actually bad behaviour from his standpoint because he was simply playing and for domestic cats playing is play-hunting. When kittens play with each other they might hurt each other but they learn the limits of their play aggression by the responses of the kittens with whom they play. When a young cat bites your hand they are simply playing with another sibling. I taught him the limits of his play as a young sibling cat would have by complaining vociferously.

To go back to the original question; you could argue that it is misconceived. All domestic cat behaviour is natural behaviour. Natural behavior can’t be ‘wrong’. It is inherited from their wildcat ancestor. Cats behave instinctively although they do learn by observation and are adaptable as is evidenced by how they’ve adapted to living with humans in the human environment. However, at the core of their behaviour instinct drives them, modified by learned behaviours (through observation) and sometimes through training by the human guardian. None of it is bad; it is just unacceptable sometimes to some people in some places.

There is an argument too that the human culture is rubbing off onto domestic cats. They are picking up human ways. If this is true it should please humans and there will be less ‘bad behavior’.

In a previous post I wrote the following about guilt. Guilt can follow a realisation that one’s behavior is bad:

“Domestic cats don’t possess the emotions of guilt and pride because they both require the ability to compare their actions with standards of behavior (if you like rules of society). This comparison requires self-awareness and as cats have not worked out in a rational way the rules and norms of their society they do not have a standard to which they can compare their actions. Therefore they cannot feel the emotions of guilt and pride…”

This reinforces the idea that cats don’t recognise ‘bad behavior’. Clearly this is a reason why punishment is a fail as punishment requires recognition of a standard.

I’d love to hear your views. These are exclusively mine. I have referred to nobody’s writings.

Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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5 Responses

  1. Harriet W Loftin says:

    i just want to share some behavior traits about my cat. When i come home an call her she runs in the house like a dog and to her bowl as she knows our regular habits. She shows signs of being jelous for sure around other animals and even my grand son like she will ignore me.Later she warms up to him.Also scratching my furniture she knows i don’t like it and stops if i raise my voice.I guess we treated her like family and she loves us right back and knows her boundaries. I wish my teens would mind as good as she does! thanks

  2. Albert Schepis says:

    I basically agree but could add that, as evidenced in the work Cat Culture, The Social World of a Cat Shelter by Alger and Alger, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, that cats do inherit a framework of culture, as we do. The main difference between them and us is that they can’t write it down and have to reinvent and employ it on the fly as needed. And the difference between that and this article is whether it is in relation to each other or to people. I’d say that they have an easier time of it regarding each other than with us, though we can help if we understand their inherent abilities.

    • Michael Broad says:

      I agree that the relationship with humans has changed the cat and so she/he has taken on or been imbued with some of the human culture and may be gaining an understanding of what ‘doing wrong’ means.

      • Albert Schepis says:

        As I recall I think there’s even more to it. Cat culture has to do with relationships with each other, not humans, though point taken. It is different than ours’ or dogs’ or perhaps any other animals’. We surely haven’t had as much of an impact on cat evolution and their culture as we have had on dog.

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