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Cat Hugging Kitten Video: What’s Really Going On?

This brief, adorable home video of a sleeping kitten and its mother has gone viral in the past week, attracting more than 18 million views on YouTube. The user who first uploaded it (dragomirnet86) titled it “Cat Mom Hugs Baby Kitten,” and another version is titled “Cat Hugs Baby Kitten Having Nightmare.” To find out if feline science backs up that anthropomorphic explanation, we talked to Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. (In the past, he’s also helped us analyze another viral video of a piano-playing cat.)

Folks who’ve commented on this video seem convinced that this kitten is having a nightmare. But do kittens really have nightmares, or dreams at all?

Well, the kitten’s clearly dreaming. It may not be a nightmare, it may be running after a mouse; we’ll never know. Naysayers will say: You can’t prove cats dream. But if you measure brainwaves in cats, dogs and several other animals, it’s clear that they go through a period of rapid-eye movement, or REM sleep, when the brain is very active. In humans, exactly the same thing happens—and that’s when we dream. I read a study that kittens do a lot of this kind of sleeping in their early life, as their brain is developing. And I believe it makes sense that REM sleep is not only associated with the maturation of neurons in the brain, but also with dreaming processes. As kittens begin to sense the world around them, those things can be regurgitated in sleep in the form of dreams.

If it’s sleeping so deeply, why is it twitching its paws?

Humans and cats both have certain muscles that are for precision, as well as what are called larger “anti-gravity muscles” like those that lift your legs. Those larger ones are activated by a neurochemical called serotonin. During REM sleep, the brain’s serotonin system is shut off, which means the anti-gravity muscles are shut off. What’s not switched off are these highly-tuned muscles in things like eyes and extremities—what for us would be fingers and toes, but for them it’s paws and whiskers. This kitten is in the state of sleep some people call “the sleep of the body,” because the body is totally relaxed except for these tips of things twitching, while the brain is active and dreaming. The opposite is “sleep of the mind,” when the brainwaves go very big and slow, almost flattening out, but the muscles are not completely relaxed—with a cat, that would be a catnap.

And what does the mom’s reaction look like to you? Is she really “hugging” the kitten?

Mummy is doing what mummy cats do. Like humans, they sort of fall in love with their babies—the hormone involved is oxytocin, it’s involved in all sorts of bonding, even between humans and their pets—so she’s cuddling up and keeping her baby close. She seems to be in slow-wave sleep, not REM, and the kitten’s movements seem to disturb her slightly. One limb happens to be under the kitten, and she puts her other paw across and feels the presence of her baby. To me it’s a perfectly natural example of maternal care and affection to a kitten who’s dreaming. You could refer to it as a hug. They’re mutually bonded and I think they enjoy the presence of each other. Human analogies are not entirely inaccurate.

How old would you guess this kitten is, or how far along in its development?

It looks pretty young, I’d say two to three weeks, though that’s just a guess. There are three main periods of growing up in a kitten. In the first two weeks, they’re basically just like little milk-sucking maggots; they can’t even open their eyes. In weeks two to seven, their eyes and ears open and they learn to socialize. And after that they’re called juveniles, becoming more independent. So we’re looking at a kitten that I think is in that second phase. The mother still needs to take great care of it because fear, the perception of danger, takes a while to develop. Humans and animals are born literally fearless, and need the parent to watch out for them or they might crawl right off the side of a bed, for example. So a kitten this young can’t stray far from its mother safely, and she keeps it close; draws it in often.

Thanks! That all makes a lot of sense.

Everything makes sense. The only thing that doesn’t make sense is people who think humans and animals are completely different.

-Amanda Fiegl

Comments

  1. tirzah
    February 11, 12:17 am

    I just saw this for the first time on Facebook and I thought it was adorable regardless. However my cat is 7 years old and he does this.

  2. jhgjhg
    April 10, 2013, 11:26 am

    Its such as you read my thoughts! You seem to grasp a lot about this, such as you wrote the ebook in it or something. I think that you can do with some p.c. to drive the message home a little bit, however instead of that, that is wonderful blog. A great read. I’ll definitely be back.

  3. Greg Butler
    hope sound
    March 2, 2013, 6:03 pm

    so cut I want it but i have 2 so that must be cut and lucy yo have them.

  4. [...] de responder a las especulaciones que se hacían acerca de este curioso comportamiento, en National Geographic entrevistaron al Doctor Nicholas Dodman. Dodman es director de la clínica de comportamiento animal de la Escuela de Medicina Veterinaria [...]

  5. Eva fernandez
    Leesburg fl 34748
    November 22, 2011, 6:53 am

    I am a ainm,lover I love them all. Ive got two cats. There names are mid night&big bubba, there a trip….

  6. Robin
    Baton Rouge, La.
    June 21, 2011, 10:47 pm

    I think this is a lovely interview and in no way “de-cuteifies” the video. And I don’t think NatGeo meant it that way. I love the fact that in this case, the “science” seems to back up what most people instinctively saw in the video, except maybe the idea that the kitten was specifically having a _bad_ dream. This is the second article I’ve happened to read today about something marvelous and wonderful in the animal kingdom, and I’m feeling especially grateful to be part of it!

  7. Andrea Holle
    Htfd,Ct
    June 9, 2011, 6:57 pm

    My old tabby used to Hug her own face all the time- It’s like a yawn or a stretch-Cute Mommy cat tho.

  8. [...] result might look something like “Cat Hugging Kitten Video: What’s Really Going On?” (Sure, you could click over to National Geographic to read it, but I’ve embedded the object [...]

  9. [...] wildfire last week. National Geographic’s editors certainly didn’t miss it, as they wrote about it on their Daily News blog on Thursday, asking an animal behaviour expert to weigh in on online [...]

  10. brendan hills
    June 6, 2011, 3:14 am

    All the various cats I have lived with over the years have done that “hug” motion as a stretch from time to time. I think the larger cat (mother?) in the video is just stretching because it’s sleep is disturbed by the movements of the smaller cat.

    But none of that means the mother doesn’t love her kitten, or that the kitten isn’t dreaming.

  11. [...] hugs! What do they mean? Amanda Fiegl at National Geographic News has the hard-hitting answers you’ve been waiting for. This is why I love the Internet. Folks who’ve commented on this video seem convinced that [...]

  12. [...] Thinking a lot about our role as adults in the lives of our students and children. Just remember, we are looking after you because you still need us (and we need you), just like this Mama and her kitten! Here’s the link to the National Geographic Website. [...]

  13. [...] science cannot de-cuteify this cat video. Dire [...]

  14. Cynthia
    New Hampshire
    June 4, 2011, 1:48 pm

    I agree with Julia, completely!

    I also find it interesting that oxytocin is present when bonding with our own animals. I definitely have that maternal instinct towards my cats, and bunny. I thought I was just turning into a crazy cat lady. ;) Glad to know it’s not all in my head.

    On a side note, one of our cats loves to climb into my lap, and sleep. He’ll wriggle himself around until he is on his back, like a human baby. In this position, he enter REM sleep. It’s truly the cutest thing!

  15. [...] hugs! What do they mean? Amanda Fiegl at National Geographic News has the hard-hitting answers you’ve been waiting for. This is why I love the Internet. Folks who’ve commented on this video seem convinced that [...]

  16. Julia
    Winchester
    June 4, 2011, 10:36 am

    Could we please all remember that human beings are only mammals like all the others, and like us they experience a whole range of emotions including love and caring. We have Burmese cats and they give us what we call “the Burmese necklace”, which is to be held in the human’s arms with their head under the human’s chin and their legs and paws around the human’s neck. Very charming and only done to those they truly love. We also had a Siamese who would jump onto a lap and hold up his paw so that he could drape it over the arm of his loved owners – a proprietorial gesture if ever there was one since he only did it to his 2 owners. ALL mammals experience ALL emotions, and humans are not particularly superior to any other mammal – they just think they are.
    gesture of

  17. Vbunnikins
    Boise state
    June 4, 2011, 3:45 am

    Every baby needs mama. Every baby needs tantrums. Every baby poops. Every baby needs to be held…like a babbby;)

  18. [...] science cannot de-cuteify this cat video. Comments RSS feed LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  19. [...] Re: We haven't had a good cat thread in awhile. Cat Hugging Kitten Video: What’s Really Going On? – National Geographic News Watch [...]

  20. Rustie Rock
    Bradenton, Florida USA
    June 3, 2011, 7:17 pm

    My Daughter has a large Sphynx cattery, and they are very different from regular cats. They are very smart, and at times tend to out think the person. They all will “hug” their babies. They will also push one away if they think it has problems at birth. Some of the healthiest looking babys, will suddenly come down with “fading kitten syndrome” and no matter what means are available to save it, we already know it will die. At birth they are predesposed to many viruses, and after as many as we have birthed in the last 10 or more years, You can tell by the actions, and teltail look they have. We make them comfortable with a full belly, and a heating pad, let it take its course. i don’t remember any of these cats, that didn’t hug their babies till they were taken away at 12 weeks. And some litter mates will also hug each other, when they have a chance meeting. It is a comfort to them to touch, and anger is handled with a swift swat on the head of the compliant one, accompanyed with a loud screatch. Trust me, it gets their attention. They have a pecking order, and some of the forever brides maids, who for whatever reason was spayed young, will be a nurse maid to the very large litters of another mom. Even to the point of producing milk. I have never had a hairy cat, because I am alergic to them, so it is interesting to read sites like this. As my daughter says, you have never known real love, till you have been loved by a Sphynx. >^..^<

  21. [...] (June 3). Just read this article on National Geographic that explains why the kitten and the mother appear to us as hugging in this video. My favorite line [...]

  22. [...] hugs! What do they mean? Amanda Fiegl at National Geographic News has the hard-hitting answers you've been waiting for. This is why I love the Internet. Folks who've commented on this video seem convinced that this [...]

  23. MerryMarjie
    June 3, 2011, 1:51 pm

    Gee, Peter, when my husband uses the endorphin-releasing gesture on me, I smile!

  24. Friday News Links « Aethics
    June 3, 2011, 12:14 pm

    [...] Fiegl, Amanda. Cat Hugging Kitten Video: What’s Really Going On? National Geographic. 2 June 2011. This brief, adorable home video of a sleeping kitten and its mother has gone viral in the past week, attracting more than 18 million views on YouTube…. To find out if feline science backs up that anthropomorphic explanation, we talked to Dr. Nicholas Dodman,director of the animal behavior clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Continue Reading… [...]

  25. peter
    June 3, 2011, 11:36 am

    My cat used to hug me like this. It is a simple endorphin-releasing gesture that I think is present in many mammals among conspecific groups.

    Cute though!

  26. [...] Well clearly the Cat Hugging Kitten video needed to be broken down and smothered in reality. (National Geographic) [...]

  27. [...] Dodman has plenty more to tell us about the cat and kitten, at NatGeo Daily News. Link -Thanks, Marilyn! This entry was posted in stag beetle. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  28. [...] Dodman has plenty more to tell us about the cat and kitten, at NatGeo Daily News. Link -Thanks, [...]

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  30. [...] webmaster@technorati.com wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt [...]