Why Do Cats Knead? 6 Reasons Why

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6 min read
6 min read

Updated - Mar 31st, 2023

Key Points

  • Kneading is a natural and common behavior and most cats do it.
  • There is no definitive reason why cats knead, but theories range from kitten instinct to simple comfort and relaxation.
  • Cat kneading isn’t a behavioral problem unless it’s accompanied by aggressive behavior that is damaging household items or hurting you – speak to your veterinarian if you have concerns!

Cats can be crazy and mysterious, but we love them all the more for it. Kneading may seem like one of these odd and unusual behaviors, and yet, cat owners are very familiar with that back-and-forth movement of those little paws. They’ve got to get those biscuit orders in!

We playfully call this behavior “making biscuits,” “making bread,” or even “kitty acupuncture,” but why do cats do it? Although scientists and behaviorists say that kneading is an instinctual and natural behavior, there doesn’t seem to be one conclusive answer.

Luckily, we’re here to discuss the possibilities. Below, we’ll review some of the most popular theories explaining this hypnotic cat behavior.

What is cat kneading?

Cat kneading is a behavior that mimics the way a baker moves bread dough, hence the phrase “making bread,” or “making biscuits.” Your cat uses their paws in a steady rhythmical motion to push and pull against a comfy surface like a soft blanket, pillow, or your lap.

Most — but not all — cats knead, and the process can look different from cat to cat.

Some cats may purr loudly or quietly, others may even drool as they continue with the motion. You might find a cat that uses their back paws in addition to their front paws, or some that knead with extended claws. Certain cats will also suckle on the corner of the pillow or comforter as their jaws go into full relaxation.

6 reasons why cats knead

So, this is a common behavior, but what’s the explanation behind it? Why do cats knead? Here are some of the most popular theories:

1. Kitten instincts

Some believe that the act of kneading is an instinctual behavior that cats bring from kittenhood into adulthood.

When kittens are born, they’re nourished by their mother’s milk. During this time, kittens knead or push against their mother’s mammary glands to stimulate the flow of milk so that they can nurse. Once the kittens are fed, they’re warm, comfortable, and often fall asleep.

As adults, cats still associate the movement of kneading with the comfort of nursing. Therefore, they continue to knead soft surfaces and objects even though they don’t stimulate milk production. You might even see adult cats that exhibit suckling behaviors or give love bites while kneading.

There is also a theory that kittens who knead were taken away from their mothers too soon — however, most adult cats, even when raised in different situations, knead routinely. With this evidence, most cat behaviorists have debunked that theory.

2. Preparing a place to sleep

Kneading may be a call back to our cats’ wild ancestors. Wild cats would use the kneading motion to shred or flatten tall grasses and vegetation in order to soften the surrounding ground where they wanted to sleep or even give birth. This process would also allow them to check the grass and surrounding areas for predators.

Some people think that domestic cats have carried this instinctual behavior with them, and now use it to prepare a comfy, soft place to sleep.

3. Marking territory  

Cat kneading may be a territorial behavior. Our feline friends have scent glands that release pheromones between the soft pads of their paws. Therefore, when they knead a soft surface, it releases the scent into whatever they’re kneading.

In doing this, your cat is marking their territory or claiming an object (or you!) as their own. This might be why your cat kneads and purrs in your lap — they’re showing they’re relaxed and comfortable, as well as telling other cats that you belong to then and they love you.

4. Looking for a mate

When cats go into heat (also known as oestrus), they may display kneading behavior to show male cats they’re ready to mate. In addition to kneading, female cats may meow more loudly and show more affection, among other behaviors, while they’re in heat.

Spaying may decrease some of these behaviors if they’re directly related to a female cat’s estrus cycle.

5. Stretching out

Cats will knead to stretch out their legs, shoulders, and toes. You’ll see many cats kneading a familiar surface as they wake up from a nap, or when they need a good stretch to limber up their muscles.

6. Showing comfort and affection

Kneading may just be one of the ways cats get comfortable and show affection. When your cat kneads, you may notice eye blinking, purring, and snuggling deep into a blanket or soft space. It seems that many cats knead when they’re happy, whether they’re getting ready for a nap or cuddling with you on the couch.

You might notice that your cat likes to knead while being petted, or kneads on your lap before settling down to sleep. Similarly, if your cat feels you’re not giving them enough attention, they may jump up and start to knead just to make sure all your focus is on them.

Is cat kneading ever a problem?

Kneading is a completely natural behavior among cats and isn’t necessarily a cat behavioral problem. Some cats knead more than others, and individual cats may knead in different ways.

If you see any of these things, however, it could indicate an issue that needs to be addressed:

  • Kneading that causes harm to you or another animal.
  • Male cats who start salivating and become aggressive while kneading.
  • Obsessive or compulsive kneading.

You’ll want to talk to your veterinarian if you think your cat’s kneading becomes a problem.

Tips to promote safe kneading behavior

Most cats use kneading for relaxation, and to show contentment and comfort. If your cat uses their claws too much, it can hurt and leave snags in your clothing or on that favorite pillow or comforter. 

If so, it may be time to discourage a kneading session. Here are some ways to avoid pain and damage during a cuddle session:

  • Never discipline your cat for instinctual behavior. Cats are born needing to knead, and it never goes away. Using harsh discipline methods will only damage your relationship with your kitty.
  • Clip your cat’s nails. Making sure your cat’s claws are not razor sharp will ensure less pain. Kneading is much more tolerable if you regularly trim your cat’s claws.
  • Use a soft barrier. Use a soft object like a thick blanket, folded towel, or pillow, to protect your clothes and skin from punctures or damage.
  • Discourage the motion. Gently put pressure on your cat’s paws to slow down the motion or stop it.
  • Lay your cat down. Gently put pressure on your cat’s front legs or back to encourage them to lie down.
  • Distract. You might try offering treats, toys, or even catnip, to distract your feline friend and stop the kneading session.

The bottom line on cat kneading

As long as your cat’s kneading sessions are not obsessive or harming anything, chalk it up as proof your cat is content, confident in their territory, and claiming you as theirs. It’s an instinct cats carry throughout their lives.

Even if we don’t know the real reason cats feel the need to knead, we know it brings them comfort and the feeling of contentment. And at the end of the day, that’s what cat parents aim for, right?

Lynn Guthrie

Lynn Guthrie

Writer, Mom of a Fab Fur Fam of Five
Lynn is a writer and long-time Learning & Development Manager at a large PNW retailer. She's also mom to 3 dogs & 2 cats!
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