By Kayleigh Roberts
Cats march to the beat of their own drum. They tend to do what they want, when they want, seemingly without a care about what anyone (human or otherwise) thinks. But behind all this confidence, do cats ever feel embarrassed?
Can cats really feel embarrassment?
Before we can answer the question, “Can cats feel embarrassment?” we must first answer the question, “Can cats feel emotions?”
According to Debra Horowitz, DVM, DACVB, cats do feel emotions, “but not necessarily in the same way we think of them. There are emotional aspects to their behavior.”
The experts are fairly split on this issue. Some believe that dogs and cats are capable of experiencing complex and secondary emotions, but just aren’t able to definitively communicate that. Others believe that dogs and cats have limited emotional range, similar to that of an 18-month-old child. The emotions included in that assessment are primary emotions — things like joy, sadness, and fear.
Primary emotions require no processing. You see a bear and your mind screams “GET AWAY,” and floods your body with the feeling we know as fear. Secondary emotions, like embarrassment, require more cognitive work. We feel embarrassed not just because we did a specific, embarrassing thing, but because we’re conscious of the judgement others might feel toward us as a result. As such, the question comes down to a cat’s level of self-awareness, which is not totally conclusive. So it’s possible your cat feels embarrassment when she tries for a jump and fails, but it’s also possible that you’re projecting that emotion onto the cat.
Is preening a sign of embarrassment?
Yes. If we assume your cat is indeed embarrassed, she might react by preening.
According to Robert B. Thomas at Deseret News, this is an activity that some vets and cat psychologists call “displacement grooming” — or, as he writes, “the idea being that the cat transfers its emotions into an alternative behavior, much as a child might twirl her hair or suck his thumb when anxious.”
This makes sense. Many humans have nervous ticks and little mannerisms that come out when we’re worries or embarrassed and just trying to avoid eye contact with people who might have seen our misstep.
How to tell when a cat is embarrassed.
Cats, like all animals, have innate survival instincts. Sometimes, it’s obvious that a reaction is driven by that primal will to survive. A cat that feels threatened will:
- hiss or
- run away.
But what about embarrassment? It’s a more complex emotion and that means spotting it will require watching your cat more closely. An embarrassed cat might:
- tuck its tail between their legs (this signals submissiveness)
- twitch its ears (a sign of anxiety)
Do cats get embarrassed when they fall?
We’ve all been there: Our cat tries for an ambitious jump, but falls flat instead. Then, they slink away and refuse to make eye contact, so we assume its embarrassed. But is he? It’s possible. If cats are capable of embarrassment, this is one that might cause it. Interestingly, some claim that cats will engage in this kind of displacement behavior whether or not another cat or a person is there to witness the fall, suggesting that the cat is actively judging itself.
Do cats get embarrassed when they throw up?
This question gets a probably not. Cats typically throw up because they’re sick or have eaten something they shouldn’t (or too much of something they should eat). To a cat, throwing up would most likely feel like a normal part of life and not something to be embarrassed about. If your cat starts acting strange or standoffish after vomiting, you should keep an eye on her and take her to the vet if her behavior doesn’t return to normal. It’s more likely that her “embarrassed” behavior is an indication that she’s feeling really sick rather than feeling ashamed.
Do cats get embarrassed when they fart?
Everyone farts, even cats. Usually, cat farts are odorless and no reason for alarm. In fact, they are such an unobtrusive part of a cat’s existence that it’s very unlikely they would ever feel embarrassed about them.
Do cats feel shame?
A New York Times piece from 2009 includes a wonderful breakdown of the difference between regret and shame and why animals are, in general, more likely to feel the latter than the former.
Per the TierneyLab blog:
“Disappointment regarding the consequences of one’s poor choice requires a fairly high level of cognition. An animal must have a rudimentary understanding of cause and effect and the ability to imagine different consequences. If a chimpanzee pushes Lever A and gets some broccoli, but sees his friend choose Lever B and get a tasty banana, he may experiences disappointment if he can figure out that he should have pushed Lever B. This type of “regret” requires some fairly sophisticated logic. Perhaps cats, dogs, and chimps are capable of this level of cognition in certain situations. But watching another animal get a tasty treat may simply trigger envy, which does not require much cognition at all.
In contrast, shame is a demonstrative emotion that social animals experience when they’ve broken a group rule. Shame serves dual purposes: it provides an internal incentive to avoid rule-breaking and it provides an external reconciliation display to help mollify angry group members. Shame does not require cognition at nearly the high level that disappointment-regret does. It merely requires the animal to recognize the fact that its group is angry. Shame does, however, require a highly social animal. This is why dogs readily display shame behaviors and cats do not, despite similar levels of intelligence.”
This is an excellent argument against cats feeling shame. They’re simply not super social creatures (as everyone who has ever encountered a cat knows).
How long will a cat be embarrassed?
Here’s the good news: Even if your cat is capable of feeling embarrassed and even if they do feel embarrassed around you from time to time, the feeling won’t last forever. Cats’ short-term memory is definitely much better than dogs’ — it’s estimated at 16 hours — but they’re also selective about what they remember and probably won’t harp on that stumble for the full 16 hours. But, even if they do, the answer is at most, less than a day .
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