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How do I apologise to a cat / undo accidental actions?

Let's say, I'm going to the bathroom at night, my cat tries to weave between legs and accidentally got kicked. Or, I'm drinking water, the cat is in the lap, I cough and spill some of that "yucky cold wet waterrr" from the cup (again, accidentally).

I've searched through this SE but similar questions deal with hard abuse or traumas, and I'm asking about "undoing" small random events.

Would simply giving a treat be enough? Or would that create some unwanted behavioural connections?

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  • 15
    I just tell the kitty "I'm sorry", and there've been no hard feelings yet.
    – maro
    Jul 20 at 23:26
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    At some point they'll learn to not weave between your legs in certain situations. Or maybe they won't ever. But at least our cats learned not to be in the way, when we move trough our apartment quickly (when we're in a hurry or angered or for whatever reason).
    – Tim
    Jul 21 at 9:24
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    Weaving between someone's legs isn't a natural predator instinct anyway, the closest is running prey down. And if a kitten tries to "run down" their cat parents, the natural response is to get a bonk on the noggen, maybe with some hissing involved, to learn never to do that again. So you stumbling and kicking the cat (as long as it's not too bad) is actually exactly what they would expect in cat society.
    – Blindy
    Jul 21 at 15:57
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    I don't think this is a real issue.
    – Cascabel
    Jul 21 at 23:16
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    I pick them up, I kiss them as a way of saying sorry, and they hate me more :))) Jul 29 at 1:43
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I don't think there are many animals that understand the concept of apology, as a high level concept as such, except for maybe some other advanced primates. MAYBE elephants, dolphins, whales or belugas.

But an apology has fundamental parts which you can communicate. Every animal genus has its own language (some are universal).

What you would want to communicate in this case is: I am not a threat, I'm not looking to fight, I'm friendly. Depending on your relationship to your pet you can also show submission, but people might advise against that for discipline reasons.

Cats don't understand smiles, but they have an equivalent: Slow blinking. Slow blinking means: We are cool, we are friends. Beyond that you can just physically pet them, use gentle voice.

I advise against treats. Animals are simple brain machines: When X happens, I get a treat. You would encourage them to try to do exactly what they did again to get a treat.

Also, from personal experience I don't recall a cat ever getting "angry" because you walk into them. They usually know it's their fault and they don't care. I don't think animals ever care about bumping into each other.

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    This is very accurate in my experience of having lots of cats - they just shrug it off, unless you're deliberately going out of your way to cause the cat harm, repeatedly, they won't hold a grudge like a human does. Jul 21 at 8:13
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    Actual reference for the slow blinking claim: nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0
    – LoremIpsum
    Jul 22 at 14:45
  • Last night both of my cats were chasing after a laser pointer and one of them ran right into the side of the other. She hissed at him, puffed her tail, and jumped away. He has a habit of chasing her when she doesn't want to be chased, but she was still grumpy about getting bumped into.
    – emma
    Jul 22 at 18:40
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    @emma What I meant was that animals treat physicalities as such, meaning, if they trip or fall for instance, they just get right back up, there is no shame or negative emotion or whatever. If there is territory tension and by chance, by mistake an animals gets into the area of another animal, then yes of course they may react defensive because they cannot distinguish. So you're right, it depends.
    – Opcode
    Jul 23 at 6:23
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I wouldn’t start giving treats for small accidents - what kind of behavior are you trying to reinforce? The cat won’t understand the concept of an “apology” via treats. And if careless weaving results in treats, kitty may end up with receiving more kicks trying to elicit treats from the human who is stumbling to the bathroom at night.

My preferred way to apologize is to show affection, e.g. a quick scratch behind the ears, “fussing” a bit, something like that, then continue as if nothing happened. The less drama you make out of the situation, the less reinforcement of “something bad happened” in the cat.

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    "Aww, poor buddy. I'm sorry bud, you little muppet!! Are you trying to kill me?!" [pet pet pet, kiss, kiss, smile, soft eyes, etc]
    – coblr
    Jul 20 at 21:04
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    I once stepped on my family's cat, full force with all my weight, while running up some stairs. It was dark, and I didn't see her lying down on one of the steps. She made a short pained noise, and I stopped on the next step, reached down, softly petted her for a few seconds, and moved on. And that was it. I don't remember any change in her behavior towards me afterwards.
    – Douglas
    Jul 21 at 18:56
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    @Douglas Maybe revenge is a dish best served cold.
    – DKNguyen
    Jul 22 at 1:11
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    @DKNguyen Yeah, like pissing in your slippers moments before you wake up so that you do not feel the temperature difference right away. Cats are that sneaky....
    – Cascabel
    Jul 22 at 19:13
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As Stephie and Opcode and Jonathan Wood all said, don't give a kitty a treat for this: treats act as rewards for the kitty herself doing something good, such as letting you comb out a knot or clean her eye, or doing something you personally think is a good idea. (In Skinner-Psychology terms it's reinforcement, part of Operant Conditioning.)

It's difficult to apologize to cats: with dogs, submissive behavior works well (although one must, as Opcode noted, be quite careful here). Some cats understand submissive behavior but it's generally not productive. Soothing, friendly behavior on your part is good though: slow blinks, petting, or "voice petting", if your cat responds to these.

Cats will mostly shrug off this kind of accident, though the time duration depends on the cat's personality. Cats that are themselves easily frightened and submissive (shy, retiring, etc) will take longer to recover—but this is kind of tautological, as we define their shyness in terms of how quickly they react to negative feedback.

Most of my cats like to "follow from in front" and I trip over them a lot. They don't mind, though I do on the stairs! I tell them that if they're going to follow from in front, they need to keep going. 😀

I keep my shoes off at home, so it's not so bad for them, but my scared-y cat is scared of shoes (which is wise of her: I can't feel the stepping-on-tail so easily with the shoes on!).

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I don't see the purpose of giving your cat treats in this particular case. What I do in this case is gently pet the cat and give it positive contact.

This counters the bad experience by reinforcing the positive experiences with you, and demonstrates that you are not angry or otherwise intending harm.

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Summary: Keep feeding and protecting it. No action can be stronger than that for an animal.

There is no such thing as apologizing to an animal. You can feel sorry for something you've done to it, yes, but not convey it to your pet.

Non-human animals don't exhibit such sophisticated understanding. A pet will be your "friend" as long as the benefits clearly outweigh the detriments on the Scale of Nature (ruled by Nature's basic rules), in which abstracted human factors such as love and guilt don't make sense. While you give it food and shelter, which are of utmost value for Natural Selection, an accidental kick or spill (or even intentional, though of course you should not harm animals intentionally) will not in the slightest affect the balance on the Scale.

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    Very well said, very well said SHRDLU... sorry I mean LoremIpsum ;)
    – Alexander
    Jul 23 at 9:01
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    @Alexander Haha thanks, I had to search for that and it was a great read.
    – LoremIpsum
    Jul 23 at 11:52
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I used to have a kitty that was all sorts of attention hungry, which was as endearing as it was annoying at times. However, he figured out that if say I did not see him and his black fur running up the steps in the morning and accidentally kicked him that he would get cuddles as I went to say sorry and make it all better. And the first two times it happened I felt like the worst human ever.

On the third day, I sensed him coming up the steps and lifted my foot at the last moment and the little animal fell down and gave out the attention plea that he had been doing the two days before. Now, I gained some admiration for the furry brat for pulling that scam (which he tried for another day or so after that), but I also understood that the implicit need he had was for more attention in the morning before I abandoned him for the day.

Most animals, like people, will do things for a reason.

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