Science Takes on an Important Question: Is the Mommy Cat *Really* Hugging the Kitten?

By Veronique Greenwood | June 3, 2011 12:28 pm


First, before you do anything else, watch the above video. Awwww! The twitching wee feetsies! The mommy cat drawing her baby closer!

When that little number when viral this week, the folks at National Geographic wondered, once the initial cuteness wore off,  how much of this “hugging” business was just us anthropomorphizing? How are we to know that mother cats don’t embrace their kittens before, I don’t know, eating them alive or something? And what about repostings claiming that the twitching kitten is having “nightmares”? What’s the deal here?

So they asked a scientist.

First of all, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, we obviously can’t know what the kitten’s dreaming. But sleeping cats show brainwave activity similar to that of sleeping humans, and the kitten appears to be in rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep, which is thought to be when the brain consolidates recent events and is also when humans dream. The twitching paws are the result of biochemical changes during REM sleep, when production of serotonin, which activates the body’s bigger muscles, is shut down, while all the little muscles responsible for delicate motion at your extremities keep right on twitching. “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,” he says. “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.”

In other words: Dreaming, yes. Nightmare, who knows.

As for that maternal cuddle, he says, it’s probably fair to call it a hug. Mother cats and human parents bond with their children via similar hormones, like oxytocin, so “human analogies are not entirely inaccurate,” he says. “To me it’s a perfectly natural example of maternal care and affection to a kitten who’s dreaming. They’re mutually bonded and I think they enjoy the presence of each other.”

And this particular kitten is very young, probably just a few weeks old. It hasn’t had a chance to develop fear yet and likely has a tendency to wander off cliffs unless its mother is constantly making sure, even in her sleep, that it’s nearby. So, kitten hugging vindicated.

Now excuse us while we curl up and watch this video a few dozen more times.

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