If a cat falls, it may immediately look around to see if anyone saw what happened. Owners interpret behaviors like these to mean that cats can feel embarrassment, but scientists seem to disagree.
Feeling embarrassed is a complex emotion that requires a sense of self that cats lack. But a cat’s behavior can suggest that it feels shame. Cats also have the part of the brain that humans have which processes embarrassment, but it’s smaller. So, there is no clear answer.
Despite that, some owners swear that their cats are embarrassed when they poop, puke, fart, or fall over. The problem is that these behaviors may have explanations which are nothing to do with feelings of shame.
Can Cats Get Embarrassed?
It’s not clear whether cats can get embarrassed or not. According to the JFSM, cats definitely have emotions, at least to an extent.
Cats can seem happy, angry, frightened, and jealous. It’s possible to infer this from a cat’s behavior. You might interpret a cat’s facial expression as happiness or anger, for example. A cat’s body language, such as its tail movements, can also tell you when it’s annoyed or happy.
While it’s important not to anthropomorphize animals and think that they experience things the same way humans do, it’s clear that cats do have basic emotions. This seems to be the case even if it can’t be conclusively proven.
But embarrassment is a more complex emotion. While it seems that a cat’s behavior can suggest embarrassment, there may be other explanations for it. As such, it’s not clear whether cats can be embarrassed.
What Do Cats Look Like When They’re Feeling Embarrassed?
The reason why people think their cats are embarrassed is their body language. Cats look a certain way when they’re happy. They half-close their eyes, and sit without tension. Similarly, when a cat is tense, it may swish its tail and hold its bottle-brush tail stiffly upright.
There are several things that cats do which lead people to think they’re embarrassed, such as:
- Looking around after they do something ’embarrassing’ to see if anybody saw
- Immediately grooming themselves, as if to pretend that the embarrassing thing didn’t happen
- Hiding somewhere that nobody can see them
- Covering up their poop with kitty litter, or vomiting somewhere that nobody will see
These behaviors remind us of ourselves. We do similar things when we feel embarrassed.
What Emotions Do Cats Feel?
Emotions aren’t unique to humans, and cats can certainly feel them. According to PloS One, a human’s emotions can even influence those of the cat that they own.
Cats have all the brain structure and social understanding required to feel emotions, and they’re likely similar to the ones we feel.
But certain emotions are more complex than others. Anger, for example, is a simple emotion that is useful to any animal in an evolutionary sense.
Cats almost certainly have simple emotions like anger, and clearly seem happy or content at other times. But embarrassment is different. To be embarrassed, you have to:
- Have a sense of self. You feel embarrassed because you look silly to others. If you didn’t have a sense of self, there would be nothing to be embarrassed about.
- Understand what others think of you. You have to understand that others think different things about you. You also have to care what those thoughts are.
It’s not clear that cats can think thoughts this complex. This would mean it’s more likely that they can only feel primal emotions like fear, anger, and happiness.
Embarrassment and the Feline Brain
Embarrassment also relies on a particular part of the brain. According to Live Science, this thumb-sized area is called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex.
The scientists behind the study say that the smaller this area of the brain, the less likely a person is to feel shame. Cats have the same structure in their brains, because the general layout and functions of brain areas are roughly the same in all mammals.
But how much this brain area contributes to embarrassment in cats has not yet been studied. This is at least partly because studies of emotion often rely on self-reporting, which is where the test subjects tell the scientists what they’re feeling. Cats can’t do that.
Because they share the same brain structure, it’s likely that cats can feel similar emotions to our own to an extent. But how much they feel, and whether a cat’s feeling of embarrassment feels like our own, isn’t clear.
Do Cats Get Embarrassed When They Poop?
Perhaps the most obvious behavior which suggests embarrassment is displayed when a cat goes to the toilet. When a cat poops, it will cover the poop with litter from its litter tray. If the cat goes to the toilet outside, it will use something else like soil or sand.
An owner might interpret this to mean that the cat is embarrassed. However, there is a simple explanation for this behavior which is nothing to do with embarrassment.
In the wild, animals have to constantly be on the lookout for predators. They have to avoid being seen, smelled or heard. This ensures the animal’s survival, so these behaviors are selected for by evolution.
One way in which a predator can track an animal is through smelling its urine or poop. The predator can smell how recent they are, and from that, figure out how near the prey is. It can also figure out what kind of prey it is.
As such, the basic explanation for a cat covering its poop is that it’s covering its trail. That doesn’t rule out any embarrassment; the cat may be driven to do so by a feeling of shame. But it’s impossible to tell.
Do Cats Get Embarrassed when They Fart?
Cats are highly unlikely to be embarrassed when they fart. To understand why, you have to understand why people are embarrassed to break wind.
One key reason is public humiliation. Most people had an experience growing up where they farted in class when younger and got laughed at.
Formative experiences like these can shape the way you feel when you get older. Even if you don’t think about the specific instance of it happening, you can still feel the same feeling of shame.
If not, then many parents, particularly of older generations, would tell their children off for flatulence. This can have the same effect. Cats don’t have these experiences, so they won’t feel embarrassment through these means.
There’s also the fact that farts smell bad, and people find it embarrassing to smell bad. While cats like to keep clean, there’s no sense that they’re embarrassed when they’re dirty or their fur is messy. So it’s unlikely that they would be embarrassed for a bad-smelling fart, either.
Do Cats Get Embarrassed when They Fall?
One of the times people report that their cats feel embarrassed is when they fall or trip. A cat might fall off a table, for example, and then quickly look around. An owner might interpret this as looking to see if anybody saw the embarrassing thing that happened.
Part of why people think this is embarrassing for cats is that they have a reputation for being agile and light on their feet. So, when a cat falls, it’s like somebody who’s normally good at something making a silly mistake. For a person, that would be embarrassing.
However, you must be careful not to anthropomorphize pets. They don’t experience things in the same way that we do. Their emotions aren’t the same as ours, and they don’t think the same way. A cat’s instincts and thought patterns are still largely the same as when they were wild.
As such, it’s possible that a cat in this situation feels embarrassed. But you can explain a cat’s behavior in other ways:
- If your cat looks around after it falls down, it may only be assessing the situation. Falling can make a loud noise and attract a predator.
- If your cat hisses at you after it falls, it may be reacting with shock. It may also wrongly think that you are somehow at fault, as cats don’t fully understand cause and effect.
Because this phenomenon hasn’t been studied by scientists, it’s not currently possible to say what causes these behaviors. But these two points are as likely as embarrassment to be the cause.
Do Cats Get Embarrassed when They Puke?
This is one situation in which it makes evolutionary sense for the cat to feel ashamed. If you have ever been around your cat when it vomits, you may have noticed that it looked up at you after it did so. It may have had a strange look on its face that you associate with embarrassment.
While it’s impossible to say for sure how the cat feels, it would make sense for it to be embarrassed here. The emotion of embarrassment makes an animal want to hide away, and if it has to do something, to do it in secret.
If a cat vomits near another cat, this won’t be good for either of them. Parasites or infections could spread from one cat to the other. So, if the cat were to evolve to feel ashamed and vomit in secret, there’s a better chance that the other cat will survive.
The most obvious application of this scenario is when a cat is near a potential mate. If it passes its sickness on, its potential mate might die. But if it does so in secret, it might not pass the disease on at all.
This isn’t proof that cats feel embarrassed when they vomit, but it is a rationale behind the idea.
Do Cats Get Embarrassed When Playing?
Another time when cats may get embarrassed is when they’re playing. Sometimes, a cat may be playing in a room on its own. When you see your cat, it may not notice you at first. But when it does, it will immediately stop.
Just like when it falls, your cat may then start grooming itself. It’s like the cat is pretending that it wasn’t playing at all. It’s difficult to explain this behavior without thinking that it is related to embarrassment.
Do Cats Get Embarrassed when You Laugh at Them?
Some owners report that their cats react with shame when laughed at. Say the cat falls from a surface, and you laugh at it. It may look at you when you make the noise, and even hiss back at you.
Being laughed at or judged is a key part of being embarrassed. You may feel completely comfortable doing something around friends, but embarrassed doing it around strangers, because you feel you’d be judged/laughed at. So, you may think that cats feel the same.
But again, there’s no reason to think this is the case for cats. The primary reason is that cats likely don’t understand what laughing is. Only a few animals have been shown to make noises of enjoyment like laughter, and in all cases, they don’t sound like human laughter.
As such, the cat won’t understand what your vocalization of laughter means. This explains why cats look at you when you laugh, or even react with hissing. You are making a noise that the cat doesn’t understand.
It’s far from clear whether cats can feel shame and embarrassment. But it’s an interesting topic which may be further researched in the future.