“He Knows What He Did”, But Does He, Really? Do Pets Feel Guilty?
Our human world is centered on immediate gratification. We want what we want – and we want it right now. Knowing this about ourselves, it’s not surprising that we experience challenges regarding pet behavior. Specifically, when they do something they know is wrong (or at least we think they know it’s wrong).
Since basically all of their behaviors hinge on instincts for survival, they eat, drink, and eliminate whenever and wherever they can. This can definitely land them in hot water with their owners, but the question remains: do pets feel guilty about their transgressions?
Need to Know
Our pets are so smart, clever, and intuitive, but that doesn’t mean they can make the enormous cognitive leap from basic emotions to complex ones. They can definitely feel joy, fear, stress, and love, but research indicates emotions like shame or guilt are way beyond their reach.
What’s That Face?
Everyone knows that “guilty pet face”. Their ears may be pinned down, their eyes are looking especially dodgy, and they may be crouching down or walking around with their tails between their back legs.
If pets don’t feel guilt, what is this body language all about?
The truth is, your pet’s body language is in direct response to your reaction, volume, or attitude. They know exactly when you’re in a good mood or a bad one, and the ways you express your own feelings, like exasperation, anger, or worse can elicit very specific reactions from your pet.
In other words, they know you’re mad about something (they don’t know if it’s anything related to them…) and to appease you they show you submissive body language. It’s not that pets feel guilt, they are simply trying to make their alpha feel better (about something; what could it be?).
All About Timing
What’s even more interesting is that our pets absolutely cannot make the connection between their previous actions/behaviors with delayed reactions. Said another way, unless you catch your pet in the act they are not going to understand that you’re upset about something they did.
Holding Up a Mirror
In short, our pets mirror our own feelings more so than actually feeling certain complex emotions. It may really look like pets feel guilty after peeing in your shoe, but really they are simply anticipating your feelings and reflecting your own reactions.
Pets Don’t Know Guilt
If you have further questions about your pet’s emotional life, our doctors and staff are always happy to assist you. Likewise, at Harris Parkway Animal Hospital we value what it takes to train and communicate with a pet. Please let us know how we can help you!