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.

  • Crissa

    I do know that I bonded with my current cat – which of her liter, did not socialize properly – by petting her when she was in REM sleep, often disturbed. This eventually conditioned her to think of me as ‘safe’, much like a kitten would feel for their mother.

    Now, is that really a hug? Who knows? But cats do show affection for each other in various ways, sometimes appearing very anthropomorphic, like this.

  • Steve Bennett

    Funny, I assumed it wasn’t a hug but a protective gesture, defending the kitten against the marauding cameraman…

  • shadegem

    I assumed the kitten hit the mother’s face a little, or at least came close, when it was fidgeting, so the mother brought it closer to make it stop…

  • cms

    My cats all make that exact same set of motions occasionally when they are sleeping–they stretch and then curl their paws in over their face. This cat just happened to have a kitten between it’s paws. Cute, but not a hug, in my opinion.

  • Janet

    Of course it’s a hug! How could anyone possible take the position that cats don’t do the things that we do! Give me a break! Cats have at LEAST all of the emotions that we have; sometimes we just don’t give animals enough credit for their abilities, thoughts and feelings.

  • Steve

    I’ll go with cms and say mom is just stretching. My cat will do this exact movement but without the kitten.

  • jamie

    I too agree with cms. I have observed this behavior all the time. The kitten was simply ‘in the way’

  • Jayne

    It isn’t just a stretch… the baby woke up the mother, who stretches a bit then gives the baby a hug by holding her close and smooshing her face into the kitten. Its the face smoosh that gives it away.

    Stop the video at 0:33 to see the actual moment.

  • Erik L.

    Why “anthropomorfic”? Humans have the same basic instincts regarding our young ones as any other mammal. If we are mammals.

  • Mindi

    I am currently bottle feeding a litter of kittens because their mother passed away the day after they were born. I have a picture of my cat, the night her kittens were born, just hours before she passed away, hugging one of her kittens. She was still groggy from the anesthesia from a C-section, but still had affection for her kittens, even attempting to move them at one point.

  • jamie

    Jayne: “…smooshing her face into the kitten”

    But that face-mashing behavior is exactly what I and others are talking about. I’ve seen it many, many times. The kitten was simply ‘in the way’.

  • Mindi

    I’ve seen a lot of human like behaviors in the kittens I am raising. Perhaps we are not as different from the animal world as we think.

    This is the blog of the kittens Im raising. It includes a photo of a very sick and groggy mama cat hugging her kitten

  • Kim

    Our two cats cuddle each other while sleeping. I have lots of” awwww pictures where one or both have their arms around each other.

  • marcia

    I have three cats and they are more like people than you would imagine. When a mother cat had a litter of kittens, Tote, my male cat was mesmerized with this litter of kittens and would spend an hour or so just watching them. He watched as the mother nursed her kittens. When the mother cat disappeared/died, Tote would lay down and stretch out next to the kittens and try to nurse them. As the kittens grew Tote would carry them outside and watch them run around for a while, then when he thought it time, he would bring them all back into the house. It was wonderful just watching these animals.

  • Mary Ann

    We also have two cats who are about the same age (8 years) but not from the same litter, one male, the other female, both neutered/spayed. The male is always cuddling up to the female, often resting his head on her, wrapping his paws around her, licking her face. It’s particularly amusing to watch them licking each other’s faces at the same time. Like Kim, I have lots of photos of them in these positions. I’m sure it’s affection.

  • Sheila W.

    It says quite a lot about the people that are quickly dismissing that cats (and animals in general) don’t feel emotionally or are incapable of it. I hope you don’t have pets, because you don’t deserve them. Couches and televisions don’t have emotions, but animals are living, breathing, feeling creatures, not inanimate objects.

  • Phil Smith

    I have 2 strays i took in last year, both getting along perfectly now (brother & sister), and they both actively seek each other out, and hug to go asleep, even in a very warm room (so its not just for heat). We never see them prepare for it, but often find them lay in ways only people usually do lol, arms wrapped around each other and faces look like they are smiling 😀 the list of attention to each other goes on, they let each other know food has been left by rubbing noses after eating, wash each other, and panic if one is locked in another room, all as if they just know things we would. Its eerie, but soooo cute :)


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