Cats are wonderfully mysterious creatures who do many unusual things that puzzle their caretakers. Kneading is one example of a behavior that’s not fully understood. Regardless of their skill at “making biscuits,” cats may not become pastry chefs, even when taught by Gordon Ramsay.
So, why would our feline friends perform such an odd behavior? Let’s take a closer look at the possible reasons your cat may knead.
Do cats need to knead?
Throughout this post, we’ll discover what kneading is and why our cats perform this behavior. Here’s why your cat may be kneading:
- Kneading is a rhythmic motion performed by alternating pushing the paws in and out
- It’s an instinct left over from nursing
- To display emotion
- To stretch
- To create a nest
- To claim territory
- To signal to a mate
After we discuss all of these, we’ll look at why cats choose soft objects to knead. Then we’ll share some tips on how to make kneading a comfortable experience, such as trimming nails and using a designated kneading blanket.
What is kneading?
Kneading is the repetitive motion cats make by rhythmically alternating their paws, pushing in and out against a soft surface. Some cats knead with their claws out, some cats only knead using their front paws, while other cats knead with all four paws.
Kneading appears to be a relaxing, comforting behavior, as most cats purr while kneading. Some also drool and have a glazed-over look in their eyes as they soak in the enjoyment of kneading.
Why do cats knead?
Many people believe that kneading is the sign of a kitten who was weaned too young. But, “making biscuits” is a common pastime for a relaxed kitty or one who is settling down for a nap. Most cats perform this behavior, regardless of when they were weaned during kittenhood.
Many theories abound as to why cats knead, and no one answer appears to be correct. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular theories.
Kneading during nursing
From the start, kittens begin kneading at an early age while nursing. The repetitive motion of kneading stimulates milk production in the mother cat, providing nourishment for the kittens. As kittens knead their mother’s mammary glands, oxytocin is produced, which stimulates milk production. This “happiness hormone” helps mother and kittens bond while providing sustenance.
Kneading seems to be an instinctive behavior carried over from kittenhood, and some cats still suckle on the corner of a blanket while kneading. Cats may still knead into adulthood, relating the relaxing act with the comfort of nursing.
Kneading to express emotion
Since kneading represents a period of comfort and safety for kittens as they’re snuggling with their siblings and mother during nursing, cats often continue this behavior to display affection toward others later in life. Feel blessed if your cat chooses to knead on your lap, as she is showing how much she cares for you. And, we all know how challenging it can sometimes be to get a cat to admit her feelings!
Besides showing affection, a cat may knead to display her stress or unease, as kneading is a comforting behavior. Occasionally, a cat will knead during a veterinary visit to help her relax. She may also knead to comfort herself when company comes to visit, especially if they insist on petting her and she’s not an outgoing kitty—that is, if she’s not already hiding under the bed.
Kneading to stretch
Nothing feels better than a good stretch for stiff muscles. Cats often use the pushing and pulling motion associated with kneading to loosen up muscles stiff from naptime.
Have you seen some of the odd contortions our feline friends put themselves in while sleeping? It’s no wonder that they need a good stretch to work the kinks out.
So, when your cat is kneading for comforting and stretching purposes, she will often perform this behavior before and after naptime.
Kneading to create a nest
Similar to dogs circling before lying down or us fluffing our pillows, cats will knead to create their resting area. Kneading may be linked back to their wild days, when feline ancestors would pat down tall grasses and weeds to form a nest in which to bed down.
Creating a nest through kneading can serve another purpose for our feline friends. Before giving birth, a pregnant cat may knead her nesting material into the perfect birthing bed. Whether it’s a soft blanket for our domesticated cats or a mound of foliage for their wild relatives, kneading helps form a cozy space.
Kneading to claim territory
Cats are territorial creatures by nature, marking property and objects—including you—that they consider theirs. To do this, cats will mostly employ a form of scent marking using pheromones. These chemicals that impart information are released through scent glands on different body parts, such as the cheeks, tail, flanks, paws, chin, lower ears, around the mouth, forehead, and the nipples on female cats.
With so many scent glands, cats rarely use other forms of communication with each other. Occasionally though, cats will mark with urine spray or scratch marks, but pheromone marking is often sufficient to transmit messages.
Pheromones are a species-specific scent, so only other cats will pick up on these odors. Rest assured that you won’t notice any odor when your cat kneads your lap to mark you as her person.
Kneading to signal to a mate
As previously discussed, kneading releases pheromones to communicate with other cats. Unspayed females will signal to a potential mate that they’re approaching their heat cycle by kneading, triggering the release of hormone-filled pheromones designed to draw in males.
Female cats will knead to signal their willingness and ability to mate early in their estrous cycle, with more behaviors appearing as the cycle progresses. Cats in heat will also vocalize, often with loud, persistent meows or yowls designed to attract the attention of a male. Females will also pace restlessly, mark areas around doors and windows with urine, and become exceedingly affectionate.
Male cats may also knead when they’ve become sexually active and there is a female partner nearby. This form of kneading is often rougher and more aggressive than the kneading displayed when settling down or performed for comfort.
Avoid these somewhat obnoxious behaviors of aggressive kneading and yowling by having your cat spayed or neutered.
Why do cats knead soft objects?
Cats seem to prefer kneading soft objects, like blankets, pillows, and furniture. We’ll bashfully admit that our kitties like to “make biscuits” on our doughy bellies and laps. But, if we stuck to our gym resolution, we’d be taking away a wonderful resting area for our cats, and we can’t have that!
Your cat may knead any soft object within paw’s reach, even your face.
But, why do cats seek out soft spots for their kneading activities?
Cats seem to search for soft areas to knead for all the reasons listed behind the act of kneading. It’s no use kneading a hard, lumpy surface to create a nest or resting area, so cats are drawn to softer objects to knead. They aren’t trying to tenderize an object into a desired level of softness with all that kneading, they’re merely making it more comfortable.
Should you allow your cat to knead?
Kneading is an adorable behavior and helps reassure you that your feline friend does, in fact, love and care for you—even though we sometimes feel like their servants. But, kneading can be painful, especially if your cat uses her sharp claws while making biscuits. Here are a few tips to help ensure kneading is the comforting behavior it’s meant to be:
- Never punish your cat for kneading. No animal, much less a cat, responds well to punishment. When using aversive techniques, such as a spray bottle or swatting, you only destroy the trust your cat has placed in you, ruining your bond. Instead, employ methods designed to coax your cat into kneading in an appropriate manner.
- Trim your cat’s nails or use nail caps. Cats have razor-sharp, hooked nails that need constant maintenance. Scratching on posts helps blunt nails and provides proper grooming, but cats also benefit from routine nail trims.
To trim your cat’s nails to an appropriate length, cut off the sharp hooked end. Most feline nails are white, making it easy to see the quick, or blood vessel and nerve, inside the nail. If you’re unsure, only cut the tip off, stopping where the nail begins to hook.
In addition to keeping your cat’s claws trimmed, you can apply nail caps. These gel caps slide over the nail and are held in place with a small amount of glue. As the nails grow, the caps will fall off, but can last for four to six weeks.
Proper nail care can prevent your cat from digging her sharp claws into you while kneading, so be sure to stay on top of this important grooming routine.
- Use a designated kneading blanket. Train your cat to only knead on a certain blanket when it’s across your lap. Kneading can be exceptionally painful during summertime with bare legs, so teach your cat she is only allowed to knead when a thick blanket is across your lap. Reward her with high-value treats and plenty of love and praise when she kneads in the manner you want.
Kneading is only one of many mysterious behaviors we may never fully understand about our feline friends. Enjoy the love your cat shows you through this comforting behavior and celebrate your bond.
Let us know in the comments below: what’s your cat’s favorite spot to knead?