Do Animals Hug Each Other?

Have you ever wondered if all those viral images of animals hugging each other are real? Here are some clues to distinguishing the genuine ones.
Do Animals Hug Each Other?

Last update: 20 October, 2021

The most classic expression of affection between two friends is a hug. It may seem like uniquely human behavior. After all, not all species even have arms in the first place. However, it’s not. As a matter of fact, certain animals do hug each other.

The hug, as such, is nothing more than a  particular behavior for conveying feelings and intentions. It signifies empathy, comfort, and even peace. These psychological processes are present in a multitude of social species.

Although for a human, this act takes the form of surrounding the other with their upper limbs, in some other species the same empathic behavior exists, only it’s expressed in another way. If you want to know more, read on.

Why do animals hug each other?

Now we know that animals do hug each other, the next question is why. Furthermore, are they comparable with human hugs?  Do they have an emotional role or are they signs of confrontation? Let’s take a look.

Cats hugging

To comfort and console

The goal of sadness is to awaken empathy in others. On this basis, a hug is the manifestation of the response of help to the sadness of another. It’s not uncommon to find these kinds of comforting behaviors in nonhuman animals.

In bonobos (Pan paniscus), for example, hugs are more than common and develop in the same way as in humans. In fact, their social interactions are based on affection, since there’s hardly any aggressive behavior in this species.

Primatologists, Zanna Clay and Frans de Waal claim that, in a sanctuary in the Congo, orphaned bonobos take long walks hugging each other, as this process gives them peace of mind. Although these hugs are more common in a sanctuary (where refugees are traumatized), they also usually occur as a sign of comfort in nature.

However, hugs aren’t only sought for comfort. In fact, orangutans “jump into the arms” of their peers when startled by a threat, such as the sight of a snake.

Chimpanzees, despite having a more aggressive temperament, are also known to be hugging animals. It’s common for them to exhibit this behavior after tense situations. For example, clashes with other chimpanzees that sometimes occur when they’re guarding their own territories.

To keep the peace

Hugs have great power to appease a bad mood. The ones given by spider monkeys are probably the best example of this. Filippo Aureli and Coleen Schaffner studied this species (Ateles geoffroyi) and its social interactions over several years. They found that, in groups of spider monkeys, characterized by their fission-fusion dynamics, the hug isn’t used so much to comfort the other as to prevent conflict.

In fact, the researchers discovered that it was more common to find hugs between primates with problematic relationships. It would appear that the role of a hug is to prevent the conflict from escalating before it turns into aggression. They concluded that these animals hug each other because they know that they must cooperate and expose their body to the other. Hence, by doing it in the form of a hug, they’re expressing their good intentions.

Animals that hug in different ways

We now know that certain primates hug just like humans. However, in this section, we mention other ways in which certain animals display affection for each other.

  • Otters. An image of the mother otter hugging her calf as they both floated in the water went viral a few years ago. In addition to the pragmatic sense of carrying the baby lying on its belly to sleep, the mother-child bond is greatly strengthened by this behavior.
  • Lions. The most hug-like display of affection in these big cats is when they rub their heads against the chins of other lions. In this way, they strengthen their social ties.
  • Horses. Endowed with great empathic capacities, horses create bonds and console each other through behaviors such as rubbing their heads against the necks of other horses, or resting their heads on the backs of relatives.
  • Koalas. In this species, the mother-offspring bond reappears, since the female carries the baby in a pouch in her abdomen. This provides protection and security to the small marsupial.
  • Seals. In these animals, the hug is represented by one seal supporting the pectoral fin on the back of another. It’s an affiliative behavior typical of seals who tend to prefer the company of others.
  • Elephants. These are deep and sensitive creatures. The equivalent of our hug is the caressing and intertwining of their trunks.
  • Lovebirds and other parrots. These families of exotic birds are used to living in large flocks, and many of them form lasting bonds with others of their species. The closest thing to a hug is them resting together, being in contact, or grooming each other.
Monkeys hugging

It’s often difficult (as well as questionable) to find a parallel between human and animal behavior. Although the brain bases for emotions are practically the same for all animals, analyzing the way in which they manifest themselves helps us to better understand their particular and unique meanings.

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  • Kret, M. E., Prochazkova, E., Sterck, E. H., & Clay, Z. (2020). Emotional expressions in human and non-human great apes. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews115, 378-395.
  • Aureli, F., & Schaffner, C. M. (2007). Aggression and conflict management at fusion in spider monkeys. Biology Letters3(2), 147-149.
  • Clay, Z., & de Waal, F. B. (2013). Development of socio-emotional competence in bonobos. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(45), 18121-18126.