Science Questions

Can animals feel guilt?

Tue, 29th Sep 2015

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Katie Marsden asked:

Can other animals feel guilt?


We put Katie's question to zoologist Max Grey:

Puppy dog eyesMax - Itís interesting you mentioned dogs because there was a news article in the telegraph about this quite recently, a few weeks ago now, asking exactly that question which is, do animals feel guilt, specifically dogs and the is no essentially.

Kat - They really just donít care.

Max - Quite a lot of people have done the research specifically into dog guilt because people do look at their dog when itís done something bad and they see thatís Ė itís called a hangdog expression. But as people have tried to tease apart whether or not this actually happens, theyíve actually done an experiment that shows no evidence of dogs feeling guilt.

Kat - How do you do that? How do you test whether a dog really does feel guilty?

Max - Well, they used the owners of the dogs to assess whether or not the dog was displaying guilt that could be subtle so they used the owner as a judge. And so, they did this by putting them in an experimental environment. They gave them biscuits. The owner trained the dog not to eat the biscuits so the dog knew it wasnít supposed to eat it. The owner left the room and then the dog was either allowed to eat the biscuit or the experimenter took the biscuit away. So when the owner comes back into the room, the biscuit is gone and they look at the dog. The owner then has to say, did it eat the biscuit, did it not, is it guilty? They can't tell. They donít know. So, not only do dogs probably not feel guilt but when you think your dog looks guilty, thatís all in your mind as well. Itís possible other animals could feel guilt. Dogs arenít that bright. There are other more intelligent animals out there.

Kat - I reckon, cats wouldnít care and would kill you as you sleep.

Max - Dogs could maybe feel guilt, turns out they donít. Cats, why would they?

Chris - Dogs have owners, cats have staff.


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