Why Do Cats Knead?

Kneading is perfectly normal. It’s generally understood to be an expression of comfort left over from kittenhood. It could also be due to a couple other reasons, like marking their territory, which are quite normal as well. If you’re a cat parent, or have spent any time around cats, you’ve definitely seen cats kneading before.

Kneading is when a cat rhythmically pushes on something soft, like a blanket or your lap, with their two front paws. Sometimes they might drool or purr while doing it.

Kneading is such a commonplace pet behavior that it has a number of cute baking reference nicknames, like making bread, making biscuits or making pizza. It’s also known as “paddling” or “treading.” But even though you may have witnessed this behavior many times and it seems pretty normal—albeit a little weird—you may not know why exactly cats knead. We tapped several cat behaviorists to find out why cats need to knead.

One thing to remember is that cat kneading “is a normal behavior and can be observed in cats of any age,” says Lana Rich, The Catsultant and well-known cat behaviorist.

Does that mean something is wrong with your cat if they don’t knead? Possibly, as not wanting to engage in kneading could be a sign of pain. “Declawed cats will sometimes not knead or make biscuits because their feet hurt so bad,“ explains Ingrid Johnson, an IAABC Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and owner of Fundamentally Feline. “One cat [who had a botched declawing] never made biscuits until we repaired his feet. The owner cried and sent us a video the first time she saw him kneading [because she was so happy].”

Cats first start to knead when they are kittens. The pressing action helps express milk from mama during nursing, Johnson says. Not only is it an instinctual cat behavior that is a means of survival, it’s also a comfort behavior as nursing is an important time for bonding between a kitten and her mother. The suckling kitten “is often purring during kneading” to show contentment, Rich says. Just because the nursing period ends doesn’t mean the kneading ends with it. Adult cats carry this behavior over from kittenhood, because it recalls the feeling of “being happy, safe and close to [their mother],” Rich explains.

Cat kneading often happens when their favorite person (you!) is petting them, and they start the motion without even thinking about it. They’re signaling to you that they feel safe and happy—just like they did when they were nursing kittens.

As Rich puts it, cat kneading “is usually a sign of a contented and happy cat. Since cats are keenly aware of human emotions and often mirror their guardian’s prevailing emotions, I am not surprised that my cats choose to do their kneading when I am relaxed and happy too. I love it when my cats choose to curl on my lap and ‘knead’ me!” Johnson adds that when cats knead they are “happy, happy, happy!” She explains that some cats purr while kneading or even make “air biscuits,” in which they push their front paws in the air to mimic the kneading motion instead of on soft objects or a person.

Another reason may be is for cats, what’s theirs is theirs, and they have certain ways of making this known to other animals—especially felines. Kelly Meister-Yetter, an author who’s known as The Critter Lady, explains that, “Cats also knead to mark their territory, using the scent glands in their paws to say ‘this is mine!’” So in addition to conveying a state of bliss, cat kneading also serves as a way to mark their person as belonging to them.

Kneading has a very practical purpose: getting comfy. This may have to do with how their wild ancestors slept. “The wild ancestors of domestic cats used to knead themselves a nest to lie in,” Meister-Yetter says. “They would flatten tall grass in this way in order to make a comfy bed to sleep on. It’s entirely likely that domestic cats use kneading for this purpose as well.”

This particular cat behavior is a completely normal one that lets you know that your cat is happy and calm, so just relax and enjoy the experience. It gives you a chance to bond with your kitty—on their terms. And all you have to do is just keep petting.

Now, you may find cat kneading a little uncomfortable or even painful because your little fur bundle has sharp claws or is an enthusiastic kneader. In that case, there are a couple things you can do: Keep your cat’s nails properly trimmed. As Rich shares, “To totally enjoy this wonderful experience, I always keep my cat’s nails trimmed.” Make sure you have a proper set of pet nail clippers that are specially designed for the job, and not regular scissors or human nail trimmers. You can also keep an old towel or soft blanket nearby to serve as a barrier between your kitty’s claws and your skin.

If your cat is really, really into kneading, or you prefer that they didn’t knead you or your furniture, you can get them a special blankie or stuffed animal cat toy as a stand-in. A lot of cats like the feel of fleece, velour or faux fur on their paws. This way, our feline friends can go on happily kneading without involving the couch pillows or your stomach. And since cat kneading oftentimes precedes a long nap, it’s all the more reason to get your kitty her own personal blanket!

(from an article on Chewy!)

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