Why Do Cats Knead?

If you have a contented feline lap warmer, you've no doubt been the beneficiary of the bonus kitty massage known as "kneading." It's as though your cat is practicing to bake bread. The way she rhythmically alternates her paws, pushing in and out against your lap, you'd imagine she'd actually be good at it too… until you think about biting into a bread slice full of cat hair. ;-)

Since she's obviously not baking bread (at least not while you're home), why does your cat feel the need to knead? If you've ever wondered this, you're not alone. In fact, lots of people who study cat behavior have asked this same question. And they've come up with a number of interesting theories.
 

1. THE LOVING TOUCH

Think about when your cat is most likely to knead. You're probably petting her. She's likely purring. Loudly. She might even drool a bit (although she'd never admit to it). Obviously she's very content, and feeling the love. So kneading might be her way of helping you feel it too.

Unfortunately, that feeling might be more painful than pleasant for you… especially if she's REALLY happy. Because the better she feels, the harder she's likely to knead - and if her nails are long, you'll know it. To avoid that feeling, cover your lap with a blanket or pillow before she perches.

Or better yet, keep those claws trimmed. Take a look at this quick, informative video to learn how.
 

2. MAKING THE BED

Another kneading theory traces its roots to our domestic cats' wild ancestors, who would knead grass to create a soft sleeping spot - sort of like the circling dogs do before they settle in. So if your cat is kneading your lap, sit back and relax… because that's likely what she's preparing to do.
 

3. KITTENHOOD MEMORIES

A third theory looks to more recent history, specifically, your cat's infancy. Cats actually start to knead instinctually as kittens, when they are nursing, to help stimulate their mothers' milk. While your cat might be past nursing age, she might still enjoy that comforting, "food-is-love" feeling she associates with kneading.
 

4. THIS ONE'S MINE

Kneading might also be your cat's way of actually "claiming" you. In other words, you're not just being kneaded; you're being marked - by the scent glands on the soft pads on the bottoms of their paws. Think of it as her way of showing she cares… enough to tell the rest of the feline world to keep their paws off you.

Scent glands on their paws? Cats are amazing. Check out "Fascinating facts: Cat anatomy" to learn more.
 

5. STAYING LOOSE

Finally, a kneading cat might just be a stretching cat. With so much power napping filling her day, your cat needs to take a break now and then to stay limber… at least until her next scheduled snooze.

At the end of the day, an explanation for why cats knead may not be as straightforward as you'd expect. Then again, these are the kinds of mysteries that hopefully make you love your cat even more. Sometimes the best things are hard to explain. And when the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, don't you want somebody to love? Don't you need somebody to love? Wouldn't you love somebody to knead? You better find somebody to knead.

 

References

  • Becker M and Spadafori G. Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet? 2006: 182.
  • PetMD. "Why Do Cats Knead?" <http://www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evrctwhydocatsknead>
  • Sellers J. Petfinder.com. "Why Do Cats Knead?" <https://www.petfinder.com/cats/cat-behavior-and-training/why-do-cats-knead>
  • Shojai A. The Purina Encyclopedia of Cat Care. 1998:191, 250-1.
  • Slick D. "Don't You Want Somebody to Love." Originally performed and recorded by The Great Society. 1966.
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