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Home > Cats > Can Cats Feel Guilt or Remorse? Feline Behavior & Correction Tips

Can Cats Feel Guilt or Remorse? Feline Behavior & Correction Tips

Tortoiseshell-tabby cat prepares to jump onto something she is stalking

Cats, especially young ones, seem to have an endless capacity for getting into trouble, typically at the expense of your possessions. If your cat looks you in the eye while calmly swiping a fragile knick-knack off a shelf, you’ll probably assume that they feel no guilt while doing so. But is that true, or can cats feel remorse for their naughty behavior?

No, cats don’t feel guilt in the same way that humans do, even if they may display behaviors that give that impression. We’ll discuss what’s really going on with your cat’s feelings if it’s not guilt. In addition, we’ll answer your burning questions about how you can possibly train an animal that feels no remorse, no matter how bad their behavior!

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Your Cat’s Feelings: More Than Meets the Eye

Yes, cats have feelings, despite their traditional reputation to the contrary. Research indicates that most cats bond closely with their owners and can recognize their faces and voices.1 This human-feline bond also explains why it might seem like your cat feels guilty even though they can’t truly experience this emotion.

To experience guilt, humans must understand that their behavior breaks some rule or code and is therefore wrong. It’s unlikely that cats are capable of this type of complex reasoning or that they understand the concept of right and wrong.

“But wait,” you might think, “when I caught my cat shredding my sofa, they sure bolted out of the room like they felt guilty about something.” While we associate the behavior with guilt, the more likely scenario is that your cat is running because they can tell you’re upset, and it seems like a good idea to be elsewhere!

Through various studies, researchers have learned that cats can recognize human emotions, such as anger, both from our tone of voice and body language.2 Knowing this, it makes sense that a cat that has just broken the human’s rules would react to the raised voices and angry expressions.

close up of cat with long whiskers looking at the camera
Image Credit: Jumpstory

Does My Cat Feel Bad for Biting Me?

People tend to apply human reasoning and motivations to their pets’ behavior, which can lead to misunderstandings.

For example, cats display aggressive behavior, like biting, for many reasons, not just the ones we might assume, like anger or spite. Even if they could feel bad about it, there’s no guarantee they would because biting probably made sense to them at the time.

The same applies to a cat that is scratching the furniture. Scratching is an instinctive behavior in cats, used to mark their territory and keep their claws healthy. Don’t assume they’re choosing the couch as their target simply to be bratty or destructive.

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How Do I Stop My Cat’s Bad Behavior if They Don’t Feel Guilty?

For humans, guilt functions as a strong internal motivator to change our behavior. Because cats don’t feel the same, dealing with a misbehaving feline can be a lot harder.

Stopping your cat’s bad behavior depends somewhat on the particular misdeeds you’re dealing with, whether they’re scratching, biting, or peeing outside the litter box. However, a few general tips apply across the board.

For starters, never yell, hit, or physically punish your cat for their bad behavior. This reaction is not only ineffective but will almost certainly damage your relationship with your cat. You should also rule out any medical causes for your cat’s behavior, especially if they’re urinating outside the litter box.

If you have more than one feline, ensure they aren’t feeling stressed or competitive over resources by providing enough litter boxes, beds, toys, and food bowls to go around. Spend one-on-one time bonding with your cat each day as well.

Cats generally respond best to redirection and positive reinforcement behavior-shaping techniques. For example, if you catch your kitty scratching the couch, redirect them to a scratching post and provide a reward when they use it.

You can also use a technique called remote correction, where you manipulate the cat’s environment to produce an unpleasant experience as the result of unwanted behavior. For example, you can smear a bitter-tasting substance on your phone charger to discourage your cat from chewing on it.

young woman hugging her cat
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

Understanding a cat’s behavior can be challenging, especially when we fall into the trap of projecting our feelings onto our kitties. Knowing that cats don’t feel guilt and remorse the same way that we do might make you feel more empowered to deal with your cat’s misbehavior. Remember, if you’re struggling to solve feline behavior problems, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Your veterinarian can help you determine what’s going on or refer you to a feline behavioral specialist if necessary.


Featured Image Credit: SJ Allen, Shutterstock

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