Have you ever scolded your cat or dog for something bad they did, then wonder if either of those members of the family felt any kind of guilt at all? Though you may think you can catch a hint of remorse in your cat's eyes or read it in her body language, experts say that this probably is not the case.
Fear vs. Guilt
You might believe your cat is feeling guilt or shame when he or she does something wrong because their actions had been physically apparent and you yourself believe she did something wrong. However, your cat's body language may be conveying fear, which, to the human eye may be interchangeable with guilt. For example, when your cat runs away with tail dragging in an attempt at finding a hiding place until the heat of the crime dies down, it doesn't mean that she's filled to her whiskers with shame! Your cat may be responding in fear to your scolding, and you may read that fear as guilt. What's more is that your cat doesn't even remember clawing up your sofa nor even know that it was the wrong or right thing to do. Why, then, did she claw? She needed to stretch, of course. A likely excuse!
The Weirdly Wired Cat
Cats are wired to live only for the moment. They emotionally react to things which are happening to them at that very moment and only do what they think is best for them at the present time, whereas guilt is a product of "shameful" actions which one did in the past. However, just because cats don't appear to feel guilt or act out of spite doesn't mean that they feel no emotions at all. For instance, a cat may relieve her present depression by tearing apart your favorite suede jacket—NOT as a direct result of some particular incident that occurred in the past. When a cat purrs nonstop while curling up on your lap or eating some tuna, then, at that very moment, you have a happy cat, and for good reason. If she's dragging her tail and lurking around corners, then she may be feeling a bit nervous about something that's stressing her out at that moment. An angry cat will act quite differently by thrashing her tail quickly back and forth or by sending a guttural growl to the present source of her anger.
The Power of Positive Reinforcement
Always remember the old saying, 'Reward for the good behavior is way better than punishment for a bad one.' Yelling and, even worse, physical punishment accomplishes exactly zero results and should never be used as a training tool. If your cat eliminates on the carpet and you scold her, she may know you're angry about her actions but she won't connect that anger to her using the carpet as her toilet. For whatever reason, she thought that pooping on the carpet rather than in her box was the best alternative for her at the time, and she would probably still insist that it was if you were actually able to question her about it. Therefore, scolding her will not teach her that this behavior was wrong.
Alternatives to Harsh Punishment
You can try squirting a tiny bit of water on your cat (not in their face, though!) in order to end harmful behavior, gently pushing away a cat that's trying to get a taste of your ice cream cone, or create an unpleasant noise (like rattling some coins in a can) to startle her whenever she's behaving badly. If these deterrents don't work, you can simply ignore your cat. This can be an efficient strategy because cats hate being ignored. But then, doesn't everyone? At the same time, be sure to give your cat plenty of praise and treats whenever they do something you approve of.
By Tom Matteo
About the Author
Tom Matteo has been a freelance writer since 1992. He specializes in hardware and software reviews for computers and gaming systems, and occasionally writes about such topics as animal behavior and care. Tom resides in Bethlehem, PA with his wife Tina and his beloved cockapoo, Angel.