There have been many different studies about the behavior of cats, many of which have come about from human insistence in projecting our own emotions onto our pets. Much of the research has been into whether cats feel guilt and shame; so far, the general consensus is that we don’t really know.
But despite the scientific research being inconclusive, many cat owners believe that their cats can and do say sorry to them when they have been bad.
I don’t believe that cats can apologize, and I will explain why. But I do think that cats are able to learn from the way react, knowing certain behaviors and actions can elicit certain responses – and some of those will be reflected in their body language, expressions, and eyes.
And because of this, it’s no wonder that cat owners think that cats can say sorry.
Cat’s body language can look like they are saying sorry
For example, cats know when we are angry and when we are telling them off. Over the years of domestication, cats have grown to understand that things like cowering, being subservient, and kitten cat eyes result in owners calming down, and possibly giving them a treat.
I’ve seen this with my own cat when we are playing. If she is mouthing during play and accidentally bites me, I will do a loud “yowl” to signal she’s gone too far. She will back down, step back a little, and does look very sorry for herself… and I then go in and give her a cuddle and lots of love.
Essentially cats learn from their bad behavior and understand that they will get rewarded for being good or displaying certain action. If you are scolding them, they might then give you those kitten cat eyes which we can mistake, understandably so, for cats saying sorry and apologizing.
Here’s what a few experts say about the idea of how cats say sorry or not.
Cats look like they are saying sorry with a sad look
“I don’t think cats actually feel shame. I think they know how to placate us with this sad kitten-cat look that makes us think they’re ashamed of what they’ve done. My guess is that their thinking is: Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don’t know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let’s try that again.” (Dr Bradshaw of PetPlan.co.uk)
We do not know if cats can apologize
“Humans have a natural desire to know what an animal is thinking, and yet we are limited to reading body language and measuring physiological reactions. The bottom line is we will never truly know because we cannot ask them.” (Dr Bonnie Beaver, Professor at Texas University of Veterinary Medicine: source)
How to cats say sorry to each other?
Whilst I don’t believe cats can sorry to humans, I wondered if there was any evidence into whether cats can say sorry to each other.
From my own research and seeing my own cats playing with other cats, they do act subservient to each other. This can take the form of bowing their heads and rolling on their backs to act submissive.
I’ve seen this behavior during rough play, and it could be interpreted as being apologetic. Perhaps this is how cats say sorry to each other after a problem… who knows?
What about the other way around?
I’ve also looked into how humans should apologize to cats, and whether cats even understand an apology. You can find out all I learned in this other blog post.
How do cats say sorry?
As I’ve established, I don’t genuinely believe cats can say sorry, but I know that many cat owners will completely disagree with me.
So, to keep things fair and balanced, I decided to ask cat owners and on social media how their cats say sorry to humans when they have been bad.
Here’s a selection of the best responses.
How do you know if your cat is saying sorry?
And here are some responses from the readers of the blog (thank you!❤️) as to how their cats apologize to them:
“Our British Shorthair says sorry with the kitten cat eyes first of all. If that doesn’t work, he will then shuffle up to us and get right into our personal space by rubbing up against our legs and rubbing his head into us. It’s obvious he’s saying sorry to us, especially after he’s been naughty and chewed another cushion.” – Dianna
“My cat knows if he has done wrong and will act all sorry with droopy ears, wide eyes, and occasionally looking down and avoiding my eye contact. It’s hilarious to see. Cats can apologize, and this is how they do it by acting all guilty and shifty!” – Hana
“I know that cats lick to say sorry. I’ve seen it with loads of my own cats down the years who will apologize by muzzling into my neck, licking me, and generally giving me as much attention as possible until I give in and forgive them.” – Philip
“My cat says sorry by licking me, but only once I give him the go-ahead that I forgive him. It’s super cute and adorable, and anybody who says cats can’t apologize don’t have a heart. They can and do say sorry!” – Veronica
Despite the studies we will never actually know whether cats know how to say sorry of whether they even have a concept of remorse and apology.
Fundamentally cats live for the moment, so being able to say sorry would require that they were aware of time and the past action. Personally, I don’t believe that cats have the mental and emotional ability to offer an apology.
Cat owners around the world will disagree with me, and I understand why; your cat can look sorry and guilty when you tell it off. But I believe this is purely because they understand what response that results in when their owners are emotional.
It’s “pleasing” behavior that they have learned works in response to negative body language from us. That’s what the kitten cat eyes, sad looking face, tail between the legs, and submissive pose is all about… surely?
There are no studies that comprehensively show that cats can say sorry, or how they apologize. If and when that ever happens, I will put my hands up and accept I was wrong.
In fact, I will say I am sorry! ❤️