Can Dogs and Cats Feel Embarrassment?

May 5, 2016

Can Dogs and Cats Feel Embarrassment? Blog Square

By Linda Cole

Pet owners who pay attention to their dog or cat can see a range of emotions displayed from time to time, but is embarrassment one of them?

We view emotions from our human definition of them, and see the world in a specific way that’s different from how dogs, cats and other animals perceive life. But that doesn’t mean that animals can’t outwardly show how they feel. Scientists know that animals can feel anger, sadness, fear, empathy and happiness. When it comes to the more subtle social emotions, like embarrassment, some experts believe that dogs and cats are capable of feeling humiliation, although it may not be the same way we feel it.

No one wants to be embarrassed in front of other people. If you slip and fall on an icy sidewalk, the first thing most people do is quickly scan the area to see if someone was watching. Being publicly corrected for a mistake will make most people blush. Animals don’t blush, or if they do it goes unnoticed because we can’t see that flash of blood rush to the face. However, I have watched my dogs slip in the snow or on ice and bounce back up looking around to see if I witnessed the fall. Every so often one of the cats will misjudge a jump and fall short of their mark. The look on their face says, “I meant to do that,” but their reaction says otherwise as the errant jumper sulks away.

Embarrassment is a self-conscious emotion, and while other emotions like fear, anger and surprise are emotions that are processed automatically without a need to think about it, emotions that are self-conscious are more complex, requiring self-evaluation and self-reflection. The question then is: are dogs and cats capable of looking inward at themselves?

Scientists have determined that dogs have the same mental and emotional abilities as an 18 month old human and can feel basic emotions like joy, sadness, happiness and fear. With children, the ability to feel empathy and other secondary emotions doesn’t begin to emerge until they are around two years old. We know that dogs are capable of feeling empathy, but the common belief of researchers so far is that dogs can’t feel self-reflective emotions. However, if dogs show empathy, is it possible they are closer to the cognitive and emotional abilities of a two year old human?

Secondary emotions are complicated, and studying the complexity of the dog mind is an ongoing process. There’s still a lot that isn’t known about our canine friends, and it’s possible that researchers will eventually uncover evidence showing dogs are capable of more complex emotions. It wasn’t all that long ago where the conventional belief was that humans were the only species capable of showing emotions. Today we know that’s not true. Until recently, scientists believed dogs didn’t have an awareness of self because they failed the mirror test, but they do pass it when tested in the way they gather information about their world. Like the mirror test, it’s possible we’re limited on what we can learn about dog emotions and cognitive abilities because we’re using the wrong tests.

Other studies have found that a dog’s brain is more like ours than once thought, at least when it comes to processing social information. One way of building a strong bond with your dog is to share sustained eye contact. This causes oxytocin to spike in both humans and dogs. It’s a form of social communication that most likely developed during the domestication process.

Whether or not dogs and cats can feel embarrassment or other social emotions is still unknown. What do you think? Has your pet ever reacted in a way that seemed like embarrassment to you?

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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  1. Tracey Fisk says:

    I believe dogs feel embarrased. Once my dog had diarrhea and pooped in my bed. I could tell he felt SO ashamed. Made me feel bad. I didn’t make a big deal about it.

  2. Jeff says:

    Absolutely dogs feel embarrassment? Has anyone ever scolded their dog for something and then see them hang their head in shame? Then they come to you looking for forgiveness. If only people were as complex!

  3. Hazel Richardson says:

    I believe that dogs have something akin to embarrassment. Our toy poodle who has never been punished for a toileting accident in the house, physically or otherwise, will always hide away if he has an accident. He’s not scared ofor us so I think he’s embarrassed.

  4. Jack simbonian says:

    My cat gets very uncomfortable if I talk to her while she’s using her litter box. She starts meowing at an insanely high pitch

  5. Daniel Lange says:

    We take care of 2 abandoned cats left behind by neighbors when they moved. We have a place in the garage for them with heated pads, blankets and pillows. When I feed them the brown kitty always rubs against my legs and jumps up and seems to always be happy to see me. A few days ago I went to feed them and the brown kitty just sat on her pad and looked at me. I knew something was wrong. As I got closer to her I could see that it appeared she threw up on the pad. She never did come near me, she just sat there. I turned my back to get a shovel to clean the pad and when I turned back she was gone. I cleaned the pad and brought the covering in and ran it through the washer. She was gone for 2 days and is now back but acting differently. She walks by me but doesn’t rub against me. I wonder if she is embarrassed about throwing up on her heated pad or if something else is going on. It will be interesting to see if she becomes affectionate again. I told her it was ok and everything is OK but who knows if she understands.

    1. Kat says:

      Take your cat to the vet! Something is definitely wrong physically.

  6. Aj says:

    I searched this article because I believe that they have more likely an embarrassment emotion.

    I can’t remember the scene, but after that, I concluded that may cat was embarrassed, and act like she really meant to do it, not just stop and try it again.

    I’ll post the soonest time, I’m trying to remember it.

  7. Corrie says:

    I came home tonight to find my normally excited pet sitting in the couch. I put things down in my room and noticed some poop on the floor. No big deal, after all poop happens. I go back to talk to her and she is shivering and frankly smells bad. I immediately start adding up dollar signs in my head thinking about a trip to the vet, particularly after hours. I picked her up and put her on my bed, she immediately curls back up and is still shivering. My mind is racing as I am thinking about all the horrible things she just have! She smells gross, I rubbed her belly, she rolls over and aha! She is overdue for grooming and has a bit of a fur jam at her backside…full of soft, smushy, smelly poop. So I think yes, dogs do feel embarrassed! I gave her a bath and a trim and she is happily asleep! Not going to lie, I don’t even think my kids had poop up their backs like this one! Love her, but yuck!

  8. Paul Dorf says:

    I am a PhD in psychology with little or no formal training in animal conditions; however, I believe that my dogs have experienced embarrassment when as an example they are totally shorn of their hair. This condition does not seem to last long, but appears to last a few days at most. I could be the way in which we react to their new condition.

    1. TARN KHARE says:

      Paul, I have to agree with your last statement and also in response to Corrie.

      Dogs that poop inside or incorrectly aren’t necessarily embarrassed. They are trained to expect a positive response when pooping correctly, and expect a negative one when done incorrectly. Having done it in correctly causes them likely to fear the repercussion of (firm reminder or a loud clap) their incorrect behavior. Fear, we know, animals have been proven to exhibit.

      A change on their bodies is likely causing discomfort: sadness/fear of change. Again I think this is likely misinterpreted as embarrassment.

  9. Pea says:

    When my cat trips, he looks around him. If he tries the leap again he will make eye contact with me for a few seconds as if he wants me to see that he corrected himself. Sometimes he will change his mind, and go do something else instead of reattempting the jump.

  10. Cynthia Anderson says:

    First of all, I don’t agree with the mirror test in every case. I had a sheltie who would stand on a chair in my living room and look in a long mirror that was behind the chair and through which he could se me when I was in the kitchen. I caught him often looking at items he saw in the mirror (and me) and then turning to look at them behind him with almost a grin on his face. I know that he knew he was the dog in that mirror. As for embarrassment, my little girly sheltie that I have is a bouncer..bounces for her meald, when she wants out, etc. One night she was bouncing away when I was fixing her meal and she fell, landing on her side. She picked herself up, looked at me and lowered her head as she wallked into the next room. She was plainly embarrased andbeing the foodie that she is it is the first time anything has ever deterred her from a meal!