Although the exact reason why cats knead is the cause of much speculation, there are several plausible—if not proven—theories as to why they engage in this curious activity.
Cats often exhibit odd behaviors their owners find equal parts puzzling and adorable. Somewhere near the top of the list is cat kneading.
Kneading is when a cat alternately presses its paws down on a surface as if kneading bread. Cats will knead soft surfaces like blankets, cushions, their owner’s lap and even other cats or dogs in the household.
What does it mean when a cat kneads? The answer to this question is a bit elusive, but there are some pretty good theories out there.
Why Cats Knead
It’s a Leftover Trait From Kittenhood
One of the most probable explanations for why cats knead is it’s an instinctive trait they’ve had since kittenhood. When they’re young, kittens feed from their mother, and as they do, they often paw at and knead their mother’s belly. In this instance, kneading has a purpose, as it helps to encourage milk flow from their mother’s mammary glands.
As an adult, your cat has probably engaged in kneading while you’re petting them, and it might be at a moment where they are purring loudly. This might be a huge compliment for you because it could mean that they feel happy, safe and comforted with you, just like they did with their mother.
There is a theory that adult cats who knead were taken from their mother too soon; however, it does not appear to hold up to scrutiny as nearly all cats knead.
Making a Nest
The answer to the question, “Why do cats knead blankets?” might be because kneading is a nesting trait passed down from their wild ancestors. Wild cats are known to paw at piles of leaves or tall grass to create a nest for themselves and their young to relax and sleep in.
By doing this to the ground, they’re not only preparing a soft nest in a way that’s similar to how we fluff pillows, but they’re also checking for predators, prey or anything dangerous hidden in the foliage. When your cat does the same thing to a blanket, pillow or another potential sleeping surface, it just might be an ingrained habit dating back to their wild ancestry.
Another possible answer to why cats knead is they’re trying to mark their territory. Cats have scent glands in the soft pads of their paws that release pheromones.
By pushing their paws in and out, they activate these scent glands. So, it’s quite possible they’re kneading you in an attempt to mark you as their own and as a warning to other cats to back off.
Going Into Heat
In some instances, female cats may knead when they go into heat. Kneading the air, stretching and purring while they lay on their side is an indicator to male cats that they’re open to mating. During this time, they may also be more vocal, display more affection than usual and beg to go outside.
If you’re interested in neutering or spaying your cat to potentially decrease these behaviors, talk to your veterinarian about whether or not this is the right option for you and your cat. Neutering can help prevent unwanted pregnancies and help prevent some diseases.
Cats are athletic creatures who are amazingly agile and have great leaping ability. So how are they able to keep their muscles loose and ready for running, pouncing, jumping and fitting into small, confined spaces? Some say that by kneading, cats stretch and loosen their muscles, so they’ll be ready for whatever physical activities they’ll get into next.
What to Do When Kneading Hurts You
It’s adorable when a cat kneads you, but less so when they do it with their claws out. It’s important not to punish them for kneading you, even when it hurts, because it’s an instinctive behavior and they’re simply returning the affection they get from you. There are a few things you can do, however, to decrease the risk of getting scratched.
If your cat’s claws tend to dig into your skin while they’re kneading you, try putting a soft barrier between the two of you, like a cushion or blanket. You can also encourage your cat to lie down and relax by stroking them and gently guiding them downward. Another method is to initiate playtime by distracting your cat with a fun toy, so they’ll have something else in which to sink their claws.
True to the nature of cat behavior, a definite explanation for why cats knead remains elusive. While these are some of the most likely theories, an element of mystery still remains. After all, these are the kinds of enigmas that make cat owners love their cats even more.