What’s Really Happening in the Kitten Hugging Video?
The one minute video from last week we called In Mommy’s Arms has been watched 18 million times on YouTube! Most folks thought it was adorable, while a few warned us not to anthropomorphize animals. National Geographic asked Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the animal behavior clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, whether the behavior of the kitten and the mother cat was really what it appeared to be. Is the kitten dreaming? Is the mother hugging the kitten out of love? And why was the kitten twitching like that?
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.