Updated - Oct 13th, 2022
We love living with cats and fill our social media with their antics. Watching a cat squeeze into a tiny box, or sit in a square taped off on the floor (a social media trend that actually works), or pounce on an unsuspecting piece of fuzz on the floor are all quirky behaviors that entertain us and provide yet another reason we love living with cats.
We don’t always know why they do crazy things, we just know it’s entertaining and reinforces our furry felines mysteriousness.
According to a National Pet Owners Survey conducted by American Pet Product Association, 42.7 million people share their home with a cat. There are some strange things cats do that we attribute as natural behavior, but some are still a mystery.
Why a cat kneads is an instinctive trait that remains a mystery. We playfully call this behavior “making biscuits” or “kitty acupuncture” (my favorite). Scientists and cat behaviorists don’t really know why cats do it, but there are some popular theories surrounding this hypnotic habit that may explain it better.
What is kneading?
Kneading is what we call the behavior of your cat using its paws in a steady rhythmical motion to push and pull against a soft comfy surface like a pillow, a comforter, or your lap. They may drool as they purr themselves into a hypnotic trance with the motion. A few cats will also suckle on the corner of the pillow or comforter as their jaws go into full relaxation.
Most cats knead, and many use just their front paws. Some will wholeheartedly get into it and use all four paws. They may knead with either retracted or extended claws; some get creative and retract their claws on the push side of the action and extend them on the pull side. Some will even knead into the air as they enjoy a petting session from their person.
It’s a bizarre behavior but just another quirky thing our mysterious felines do that fascinates us. But why do they do it? What does it do for them?
Let’s look at where kneading originates and why your cat does it.
The knead to feed
When kittens are born and with them being mammals, they’re nourished by their mother’s milk. It doesn’t take them any time at all to discover that kneading or pushing against the mom’s mammary glands stimulates the flow of milk to fill their tummies. As it satisfies their hunger, they settle into a warm, comfortable, drowsy state and fall asleep.
This scenario supports the theory that the act of kneading is an instinctual behavior offering cats relaxation while providing a feeling of contentment and comfort. Some believe that’s the biggest reason cats continue to knead from kittenhood to the geriatric stages of their lives.
There’s also a theory kittens taken away from their mothers too soon or weaned too early will continue to knead like it’s an unmet growth milestone; but most adult cats, even when raised in different situations, do it routinely. Cat behaviorists have debunked this theory and attribute it more to a cat’s instinctive behavior.
Let’s look at other reasons cats knead.
Prep for a purrfect nap
Wild cats will use the kneading motion to shred or flatten tall grasses and vegetation or soften the surrounding ground where they want to sleep or give birth. Since most adult cats will knead prior to napping, it’s thought that the behavior is used to prepare a comfy sleep area.
It’s about territory
Cats, including domestic cats, are all about territory and claiming what’s theirs. They have scent glands that release pheromones between the soft pads of their paws. When they knead a soft surface, it releases the scent into whatever they’re kneading. This does two things: mark their territory or an object as theirs and leave clues about their dominance or sexual state to nearby cats.
Just prior to a female cat’s heat (or oestrus) cycle, she’ll display the kneading behavior and meow loudly in front of a male cat to show she’s ready and willing to mate. Domestic female cats will do this as well.
Often, when a cat is kneading and purring in your lap, they’re showing you they’re relaxed, comfortable, and this human is theirs. It’s actually a stamp of approval from your cat and very similar to the head butt, or rubbing their whiskers and face on you. You are their territory, and they’re claiming you. Sweet, right? And they say cat’s don’t show love!
Cats will knead to stretch their legs, shoulders and toes. So you’ll see many cats kneading a familiar surface as they’re waking up from a nap or when they need a good stretch to limber up their muscles. Unfortunately, the pliable surface may be your lap, thus the term kitty acupuncture.
When kneading isn’t so sweet
There are some circumstances when kneading takes an obsessive or uncomfortable turn. When that happens, it may be time to speak to your kitty’s veterinarian about it.
Signs kneading may be a problem:
- The kneading is becoming compulsive or obsessive
- It’s causing harm to you or another animal (yes, they will knead on all their loved ones including other pets in the house).
- When male cats start salivating and become aggressive while kneading
Most cats use kneading for relaxation, and to show contentment and comfort. If your cat uses its 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 tips for avoiding pain and damage during a cuddle session:
- It’s instinctual: Never discipline your cat for instinctual behavior. They’re born needing to knead, and it never goes away. Using harsh discipline methods will only damage your relationship with your kitty.
- Clip kitty’s claws: Making sure your cat’s claws are not razor sharp will ensure less pain. I can handle being kneaded by my cats when their claws are short and dull.
- Use a soft barrier: Use soft object like a folded towel, pillow, or small blanket to protect your clothes and skin from punctures or damage
- Discourage the motion: Gently put pressure on their 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: Offering treats or toys to distract your feline friend and stop the kneading session.
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. There’s no need for interventions like declawing your cat to solve the problem, 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. After all, that’s what we pet parents aim for, right?