Can you catch a yawn from a cat?

01 December 2014
Presented by Sara Sjosten.

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Why do we yawn? Is it because we're short on air? Matthew Boniface wanted to know this and whether he could catch a yawn from his cat. We spoke to Dr Hugh Matthews from Cambridge University to find out what makes them so contagious...

In this episode

00:00 - Can you catch a yawn from a cat?

Can we catch a yawn from our feline friends?

Can you catch a yawn from a cat?

Dr Hugh Matthews, reader in physiology at Cambridge University, explains why yawns are sometimes catching...

Hugh - Yawning seems to have very little to do with breathing itself. Even unborn babies yawn and they don't need to breath yet!

One reason why we yawn is that we may be trying to stay alert or vigilant during the transition between wakefulness and sleep. This happens in nearly all animals and may in part be a sensory response to muscle contractions from the yawn.

But, in some mammals, it plays an emotional role too, to help calm you down before or after stress. For example, a cat or a dog might yawn more at the vets and a human athlete might yawn repeatedly just before a race.

Yawning could also be contagious. Catching a yawn requires the ability to involuntarily empathise with others. So contagious yawning was believed only to happen in humans and other great apes. However, some psychologists have recently found that dogs can catch yawns from humans too, suggesting that these social animals may have a surprising degree of empathy with their owners.

Nevertheless, while you might be able to catch a yawn from your cat, I think that it's less likely that your cat would be able to catch a yawn from you!

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