The science of cute cat videos

Kitten 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 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.

Cat Hugging Video: What's Really Going On? — National Geographic News Watch

Video Link


  1. Well, it’s not really science, but I’d hazard the guess that any dog or cat owner is utterly convinced that their pets have dreams. The twitches, the “talking in their sleep,” the little feet jiggling as if in pursuit of something really good, the eye movements… Dreaming is definitely the most parsimonious explanation.

    One thing that I’ve always found interesting is that, upon waking up from a dream, my dogs are totally unconfused. We often think of animals of having a pretty simple epistemology, but they totally get the difference between waking and dreaming (dare I say, more than some humans of the woo-woo variety that I know!).

    1. Hehe, this dog looks pretty confused:

      but that could be a concussion more than anything else.

    2. I’m curious how sharply animals differentiate waking from sleeping. I feel like lots of things are mysteries to animals, that they just come to accept. (Like when I use the light-switch to go from light to darkness.) Animals might understand that sleeping is a different “place,” but I don’t know if they understand it is not “real.” Or conversely, maybe they don’t understand that the real-world isn’t a dream. I.e. they may experience absurd or improbable things in the dream world, and may not recognize that those events don’t happen when they are awake.

      1. My dog dreams loudly a lot. He will start barking in his sleep, his legs twitching. If I just barely shake him, it will only pause the dream, not stop it, and he will go back to it. I have to wake him to get the dream to stop, but when his eyes open he instantly realizes – oh – not really chasing a 12 foot steak.

        Also – to those who doubt animals have emotions – they certainly do. They aren’t robots. Dogs will just about have an orgasm every time you come home. They absolutely have a level of ‘love’ or perhaps ‘loyalty’. They enjoy your company and show affection. If you ever have two dogs and one dies, the other will clearly be distressed by it.

        Their emotions may not be as complex or deep or meaningful as humans – but they are there.

        Hey – how about a joke? How loves you more, your dog or your girlfriend? Lock them both in your trunk for an hour and see which one is happy to see you.

    3. I think it makes perfect sense your dogs wouldn’t be confused. Dreaming’s a natural process and it would most certainly be detrimental to an animal’s chance of survival if it were confused when it woke up.

  2. default conjecture of animal behaviorist of old (i know, i was among them): if a demonstrated animal behavior had all the outward signs of a “higher” characteristic of humans, then it’s something else, possibly rudimentary, or even unrelated. (then came the “cognitive theorists”; who i always classed as “Occam’s razorists”)

    whhhy, it’s almost as if behavior and (common branch) evolution were entirely separate processes.

    ah well, scientists evolve too.

  3. To be fair, you can’t prove ANYONE dreams. I don’t know why anyone would draw an arbitrary distinction between humans and other animals, at least as a starting presumption. It sure looks like my dog dreams – she acts, by turns, happy, frightened, and chasing-rabbitsy in her sleep. In the absence of other information, I am content to assume that she dreams.

    1. Well, for people, you can trust them. Though I would be very curious to know how we concluded that we dream in REM.

  4. “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.”

    I knew that fear in both humans and animals was often exploited, but there it is in National Geographic – fear is not native to any creature; it’s strictly a learned response. Intriguing.

  5. at that age, i’d think it would have to be dreaming of nursing. little paws flailing, mouth working…

  6. From the link:

    “…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… 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.”

    Good answer. :)

  7. You can’t prove cats dream.

    Seriously. Stop anthropomorphizing. And just because a pet has imprinted on you doesn’t mean it “loves” you or is capable of human emotion.

    I’ve got a kick-ass cat, but I have no illusions about it being anything more profound then a cat.

    1. It’s pretty well-accepted that cats (and most mammals) dream. They have REM sleep cycles. They probably just dream of hunting, though — rehearsing instinctive behaviors. I doubt they have profound psychological insights.

      Animals can certainly feel fear and pain, and have instinctive defense behaviors, so I don’t see why they couldn’t have “nightmares” in the sense of their brain rehearsing those feelings and behaviors.

      No, of course cats aren’t human, and the cats in this video aren’t acting according to human motivations and feelings. I sincerely doubt the mother cat is thinking “Oh, my kitten is having a nightmare, I should comfort him.” It’s cute to see an animal acting in a way that looks human, but clearly the same thing is not going on here as with a human mother and child.

      But it’s not anthropomorphizing to say cats dream. I’m not really sure why you think it is.

    2. “You can’t prove cats dream…

      …Seriously. Stop anthropomorphizing. And just because a pet has imprinted on you doesn’t mean it “loves” you or is capable of human emotion.”

      1. Nobody is saying that you can. Also you cannot prove they don’t dream either.

      2. Again, not provable either way but, why wouldn’t animals have evolved some types of emotions? (Maybe not “human” ones). Experiences like fear, pleasure, etc. seem like they would be useful in the life of most any critter. Is it just that you can call them “emotions” when they’re being experienced by homo sapiens, but for some reason the term doesn’t apply to lower animals? Why?

    3. You can’t prove cats dream.

      True. (Or at least I can’t. A fully equipped sleep lab may be able to do so for all intents and purposes).

      Seriously. Stop anthropomorphizing.


      I mean, after all, “lack of evidence is not evidence of lack” (or some such), and you can’t prove that a cat doesn’t dream.

      Seriously. Start anthropomorphizing.

      It is every bit as veridical and rational, and it’s a lot more fun.

    4. Lol you think YOU own the cat?

      Does the cat do anything productive for you?
      Or do you just feed and water it and clean its shit?

      Cats have personal assistants not owners =)

    5. If the parts of the brain that the activity happens in is conserved between the species, is it really anthropomorphizing?

    6. You can’t prove cats dream. Seriously. Stop anthropomorphizing. And just because a pet has imprinted on you doesn’t mean it “loves” you or is capable of human emotion. I’ve got a kick-ass cat, but I have no illusions about it being anything more profound then a cat.

      Yeah, humans evolved differently than other mammals because God gave us special magic DNA.

      The funny (and by funny, I mean sad) thing is that people who promote human exceptionalism generally do so in the name of scienciness.

      1. Marry me? XD Seriously, though. Do you have any idea how inconvenient it would be for a lot of people if they were forced to acknowledge that just maybe, we’re only mentally different from other animals in brain volume? I mean – gosh – what if they knew cattle and pigs and chickens felt fear, or grief over loss of a loved one? It’d make it really tough to go on ordering Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets, wouldn’t it? I’ve lived with various animals all my life, and in my opinion, most of them share the same emotions as people. Fear, love, joy, longing, anxiety, and so on. And they absolutely dream. Rapid eye movement, paws twitching in a running motion, tail whipping from side to side, ears flicking, noises of fear or anger… And if you wake them up, their reaction is generally, “HEY – LOOK OUT FOR THE BIG SCARY…. oh… where did it go? And how did I suddenly get from the jungle back to the living room?” People who refuse to acknowledge this kind of fact are living in denial of the reality that animals deserve the same respect and consideration as humans.

    7. There is no such thing as “proof” or “disproof” outside of mathematics. There is only evidence. And in this case, the weight of evidence is against you.

    8. Pfft! Cats, dogs, pigs, gorillas, etc. Mammals is mammals. We share similar morphological & physiological structures. Brains is braaiiins. Absolutely animals have emotions (and dreams). Maybe cats don’t have the depth of emotion humans do, or back up that emotion the same thoughts humans do.

      Here’s an analogy: My iPhone’s a computer, so’s my MacBook. The iPhone does similar things as the MacBook, but with less complexity and ability. Then there’s the Dell. It does the same sorts of things, but isn’t related taxonomically. Convert to meat.

  8. I have no doubt that cat’s dream. Some even sleepwalk. I’m more concerned about what kittens could possibly have to dream about. How could they be chasing mice if they’ve never seen a mouse, or for that matter chased anything? Does the unformed kitty brain chase random shapes in a form of isometric exercise?

  9. I think it is not sensible to start from the default position that humans are the only animals that have emotions/think/whatever else. It seems to me a fundamentally religious position, rooted in the imaginary (but dearly held)soul/no soul distinction.

    Most higher animals exhibit behaviours that are indistinguishable from, say, emotional responses. While one might wish to test whether those behaviors are indicative of an emotional inner life or not, it seems to me that the reasonable default (based on the same evidence that we use to deduce that our fellow humans have emotions) is to agree that they probably do.

  10. This is complete anthropomorphizing, but the best part of the vid is where the mother cat bats the camera away as though to say “Hey, can opener. My kitten is trying to sleep, and so am I. Do I get in your face, while you sleep? Yes. Yes, I do. But I have claws, and you don’t. So shag off.”

  11. The notion that animals have absolutely no emotions/intentions related to those of humans is just plain inelegant. We are animals. Our emotions evolved from those of more primitive ancestors. Sure, it is silly to project concerns that are largely human onto animals, but it’s in no way ridiculous to assume that their experiences of fear, pleasure, comfort, aggression… may be emotional to some level.

    The intricacies of our own emotional landscape remain murky, but we can’t expect to discover much about it if we treat the study of it in our fellow mammals (or in ourselves for that matter) like an insurmountable taboo.

    Us homo sapiens are ‘speshul snoflakes’ in plenty of ways. There is no need or excuse to deny the true capacities and nature of our fellow animals; unless of course one wants to pose as a magical, mythological creature…

  12. My dog would dream with twitchy paws, seeingly chasing things. He also had bad dreams that made him whimper. I then told him that he was just having a bad dream, like one tells a child. He would breathe a sigh of relief and continued sleeping calmly.
    I’ve never anthropomorphised animals, or only in jest, but I’ve treated them like persons. Mainly because I am a person, and that’s how I know to treat other beings. Many animals, like dogs, adapt to that in amazing ways. Their understanding of language can be amazing, their vocabulary huge.
    People often remarked how my dog was more like a person than an animal. Uhh, no. Just an animal trying to communicate on our level decently successful.
    He look into peoples eyes trying to speak with them in a very human voice. His enunciation was too bad. I would ask him what it was he was trying to get across: “Did Timmy fall into the well?” No. “Do you feel like taking a walk on the beach?” No. “Oh, the cat wants to come in?” He was visibly glad when I understood him.
    His name was Ipo, He was one of the best friends I ever had and he was never a pet.
    I feel sorry for people that treat their creatures as animals and even more sorry for the animals.

    1. I’m sorry he’s gone. Sounds like an exceptional hound.

      Hey, how about another joke: A visiting head of state tries to make a gift of a giant tortoise to Fidel Castro. “They live to be 200 years old!”, says the visitor. “Thanks, but no thanks.”, says Fidel, “The problem with pets is they die just when you get attached to them”.

  13. Considering that emotions so often prompt impulsive, animal-like behavior in humans, I’m not sure why it’s so often called “anthropomorphizing” to attribute emotion to animals. It is not emotions that distinguish us from animals, but the extent of our ability to limit, control, and direct the expression of our emotions.

    “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.”

    One of the most touching things I have ever seen was a young kitten wandering across the sidewalk and getting too close to the curb of a busy city street. The mother cat noticed and hurried over, picking him up by the scruff of the neck and carrying him back to a safer spot. I regret that I could not take a video to share with the internets.

  14. Ok, I’ll confess, my wife and I have stuffed animals on the bed. They’re not bears, they’re mostly tigers and lions and the occasional lizard. A few years ago we got a new cat, a big three-year-old male, and after he’d finished meeting the other cat and learned where the litter box was, we let him explore the house. He didn’t care about the tigers, but one day there was a lion on the bed, about the size of a cat, and he freaked out when he saw it. He nervously went over to check it out, poked it a bit, and decided it wasn’t real, and after that he was ok with it. (He and previous cats have generally recognized the stuffed animals as “pillows for cats to lie on”.)

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