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Why Do Cats Knead?

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If you’re a cat owner, or have spent any time around cats, you’ve definitely seen cats kneading before. It’s such a commonplace pet behavior that it has its own cute baking reference nicknames, like making bread, making biscuits or making pizza. It’s also known as “paddling” or “treading.” But then you start to wonder—why do cats knead? And an even more puzzling question is “why does my cat knead me?” Well, the short answer is that there are several answers. But the thing to remember is that cat kneading “is a normal behavior and can be observed in cats of any age,” says Lana Rich, The Catsultant and well-known cat behaviorist. 

Why Cats Knead

Getting ready to feed. “Most Cat Behaviorists seem to accept the theory that kneading harkens back to a cat’s early kittenhood experience of stimulating the flow of milk from the mother,” explains Lana. Cat kneading recalls the feeling of “being happy, safe and close to her as well.” So from the beginning of their lives, it’s a very instinctual cat behavior that is a means of survival. Nursing is an important time for bonding between a kitten and her mother, and the kitten “is often purring during kneading” to show contentment.

Expressing pure happiness. Cat kneading carries over into adulthood for many kitties. It often happens when their favorite person (you!) is petting them, and they start the motion without even thinking about it. They’re signaling to you that they feel safe and happy, and that they don’t want to be anywhere else but near you, being petted and kneading you in return. As Lana puts it, cat kneading “is usually a sign of a contented and happy cat. Since cats are keenly aware of human emotions and often mirror their guardian’s prevailing emotions, I am not surprised that my cats choose to do their kneading when I am relaxed and happy too. I love it when my cats choose to curl on my lap and ‘knead’ me!”

Marking what’s theirs. For cats, what’s theirs is theirs, and they have certain ways of making this known to other animals—especially felines. Kelly Meister-Yetter, an author who’s known as The Critter Lady, explains that, “Cats also knead to mark their territory, using the scent glands in their paws to say ‘this is mine!’” These scent glands are activated as they flex their paws back and forth. So in addition to conveying a state of bliss, cat kneading also serves as a way to mark their person as belonging to them. It’s a win-win for your cat!

Settling in for a nap. According to Kelly, “The wild ancestors of domestic cats used to knead themselves a nest to lie in. They would flatten tall grass in this way in order to make a comfy bed to sleep on. It’s entirely likely that domestic cats use kneading for this purpose as well.” Lana agrees that cats “often knead when preparing for a cat nap, but only on soft surfaces.”

What You Should Do About It

Enjoy the moment. So what do you need to do about cat kneading? Basically, nothing. This particular cat behavior is a completely normal one that lets you know that your cat is happy and calm, so just relax and enjoy the experience. It gives you a chance to bond with your kitty—on his terms. And all you have to do is just keep petting.

Make yourself comfortable. Now, you may find cat kneading a little uncomfortable or even painful because your little fur bundle has sharp claws or is an enthusiastic kneader. In that case, there are several things you can do. First, be sure to keep your cat’s nails properly trimmed. As Lana shares, “To totally enjoy this wonderful experience, I always keep my cat’s nails trimmed.” Make sure you have a proper set of pet nail clippers that are specially designed for the job, and not regular scissors or human nail trimmers. And second, keep an old towel or nice blanket nearby to serve as a barrier between kitty’s claws and your skin.

Make kitty comfortable. If your cat is really, really into kneading, or you prefer that she didn’t knead you or your furniture, you can get her a special blankie or stuffed animal as a stand-in. A lot of cats like the feel of fleece, velour or faux fur on their paws. This way, your fluffster can go on happily kneading without involving the couch pillows or your stomach. And since cat kneading oftentimes precedes a long nap, it’s all the more reason to get your kitty her own personal blanket!

Now that we’ve learned a little bit about cat psychology and discovered why cats knead, we can fully appreciate cat kneading and the opportunity it gives us to connect with our cats.