Can Pets Feel Embarrassed?

chihuahua pug mix dog dressed as a pig lying on the floor

Do dogs feel embarrassed when you laugh at them? Do cats blush when you catch them scratching the couch? Do dogs get embarrassed when they poop? The answer to those questions is a bit of mystery.

Pet Emotions

There’s no doubt that our pets have emotions. While they can’t explain their emotional state to us, they can show us how they’re feeling with their body language and behavior.

Basic emotions like happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, fear, and disgust can be easy to recognize in our four-legged friends. Happy dogs wag their tails or even their whole bodies and yap excitedly. Fearful cats arch their backs and hiss to scare away the threat. Surprised pets dart out of the room or take cover under the couch.

More complex emotions, such as embarrassment, shame, jealousy, disappointment, and compassion, are a little tougher to figure out when it comes to pets. We may attribute these emotions to our four-legged pals, but it’s hard to know if that’s what they’re truly feeling.

In a Dutch study, participants attributed both basic and complex emotions to their pets. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we can’t always interpret what goes on between those furry ears. What may seem like a complex emotion could be something else:

Understanding Embarrassment

We’ve probably all felt embarrassed at some points in our lives. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that can cause us to blush, raise our heart rates, and make our palms sweat. It comes up when we feel like we’ve done something wrong, for instance, if we speak out of turn or unexpectedly trip in front of a group of people.

Psychology Today suggests that this emotion serves a social purpose. It helps teach us that we’ve made a mistake that we don’t want to repeat again. Outward signs of embarrassment like sweating or a reddened face also let others know we’re aware of our faux pas. This can help lessen any judgmental feelings they may have about us.

Embarrassment requires an awareness of what someone else may be thinking about you. It’s a lot like shame in that way. Guilt is also related to embarrassment and shame, but this emotion is more about our own internal perception of something you said or did than worry about what others may think of us.

So, do dogs get embarrassed? Do cats feel shame or guilt? It’s simply not clear if our pets experience these complex emotions.

tortoiseshell domestic shorthair cat peeking out from under blankets

Pets Acting Embarrassed

How do cats act when they’re embarrassed? What about dogs? You might interpret actions like slinking away, refusing to make eye contact, or giving you those puppy dog eyes as indicators that your pet is feeling embarrassed. However, they may be reacting to your response to them instead.

For instance, I walked in on my cat as she was putting her claws into the side of our family’s new couch. Scratching is a natural behavior for cats, which is why I have plenty of scratching posts and mats around the house. But sometimes, she can’t resist getting at the furniture.

When I caught her pressing her nails into the fabric, she stopped and stared at me with a strange look on her face. Then she darted out of the room. Was she embarrassed at getting caught? Probably not, but I do think she knew I was less than pleased with her behavior, and she ran away before I had a chance to scold her.

Behaviors that look like signs of embarrassment may come from your pet’s fear of upsetting you or anticipating getting into trouble. Pets can pick up on our moods and body language, and they can tell when we’re not happy with them. Dogs especially tend to be in tune with our emotions because of how they were domesticated.

It would take a deeper understanding of the inner workings of our pets’ minds to know exactly what’s going on in these instances. Are they truly concerned about how we perceive them in that moment, or are they responding to our emotions and reactions?

While we can’t really know what goes on in our pet’s head, we can take some fun guesses as to what our dogs and cats might be thinking about.

Anthropomorphism

Believing that our pets experience embarrassment may have more to do with us than them. We would be embarrassed if we got caught destroying someone else’s property, so we imagine our pets feel that way too. Attributing human emotions to animals in this way is called anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism is a common phenomenon, and it can help us feel connected to our four-legged friends. One study showed that pet parents who ascribe human traits to their pets scored higher on a scale that measured the strength of their bond.

It can help us believe we have a deeper understanding of our pets than we do. It’s probably why many of us so freely tell our pets about our daily struggles. Not only do they listen without judging, but we also feel like they get us.

Anthropomorphism is typically not problematic unless it puts someone in a dangerous situation. For instance, you may project friendly and welcoming emotions onto a cute wild animal, such as a baby deer or bear cub, but it’s still not safe to approach them.

Wild animals like skunks, bears, and even deer can harm your pet. Find out what to do if your pet has a wild animal encounter.

Pet Shaming

Pet shaming is a social media trend where pet parents post pictures or videos of their pets looking forlorn after getting caught doing something they shouldn’t. They include funny signs or captions that might read, “I destroyed mommy’s garden,” “I snuck out the window,” “I ate a roll of toilet paper,” or “I stole my brother’s treats.”

Some of these posts are entertaining, but they’re not going to dissuade the pet from doing it again. Obviously, pets can’t read the sign, and it’s unlikely they feel embarrassed or ashamed.

While a pet getting into trouble from time to time can be amusing, ongoing behavioral issues can be disruptive to the entire household. They can also be harmful to the pet, depending on the behavior.

If your pet has an ongoing behavioral issue, you should consult with your veterinarian. Keep in mind that the diagnosis and treatment of behavioral conditions like destructive scratching and excessive vocalization may be covered by pet insurance. Learn more about what’s covered.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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