If you don’t know what kneading is, it’s when cats press alternating paws into a surface, such as a human or soft blanket, similar to bakers kneading bread dough. Why do cats knead? Unfortunately, we don’t know for sure why cats knead. The one thing we do know is that kneading only occurs when cats are content and don’t feel threatened, which is why it is often accompanied by purring. The explanations below, however, are the most likely, and therefore most popular, theories as to why cats knead.
Kitten Instincts: When kittens are nursing, they knead their mother’s stomach to stimulate milk production. The most likely reason a cat kneads is for the familiar comfort this action provides. Kneading happens quite frequently when a cat is being petted, scratched, or cuddled, and it’s probably because they are reminded of the comfort they felt when nursing.
In Heat: Female cats tend to knead before going into heat, or estrus. It’s one of their many ways of signaling to male cats “hey, I’m ready to mate! Let’s make some kittens!”
Stretching: Kneading is a great way for cats to stretch the muscles in their front legs and shoulders, as well as their back. If you’re into yoga, think of it as child’s pose with a bit more engagement in the arms.
Territorial: Did you know cats have scent glands in their toe beans (paw pads)? Kneading helps activate these glands so your kitty can tell other kitties to back off—you’re their human! Of course, this can also work for things like their bed, toys, or the area around their food and water bowls.
Ancestral Instincts: A long time ago, before cats were domesticated, felines would knead grass, leaves, and whatever else was on the ground, to soften it to make a comfortable place to sleep or give birth. It’s possible our kitties have retained this instinct and use kneading as a pre-naptime ritual.
Kneading can be painful if you’re on the receiving end of it. No one likes claws continuously digging into their skin. But it’s important to remember that cats don’t know they’re hurting you. They knead their mothers and it doesn’t hurt them, so why would it hurt you? It’s a completely natural behavior for cats so they shouldn’t be reprimanded for it. Instead try clipping your cat’s nails, or putting a blanket in between your skin and your cat’s paws. We hope this helps you understand why cats knead!
Interested in learning more about cat behavior? Check out this post on reading your cat’s body language!