Have you ever had your cat knead your lap or belly like it is a piece of dough they are preparing to pop into the oven? You know, that bizarre cat quirk in which your cat as if in a trance, lifts one paw and then the other on a soft surface (you) over and over and over again. What’s up with that? Does it mean anything?
Not all cats knead nor do they knead in the same way. For example, most cats only use their front paws while others use all four. It turns out this behavior is innate with cats and manifests at a very young age. According to Virginia-based veterinarian and Freshpet ambassador Kat Nelson, DVM, kittens that are too young to even open their eyes push around (knead) when suckling to get their mother’s glands to release more milk. Although no one really knows why cats sometimes continue this behavior through adulthood, several theories exist.
One thought is that kneading is soothing to the cat due to the feline associating kneading with the comfort of Mama Cat and her milk. Since they are no longer doing it for the milk, it could simply be because it is relaxing. This is further evidenced by the fact that most cats purr loudly when kneading. Dr. Nelson says, “Like a kid sucking a thumb, it’s a calming thing. A lot of cats have their eyes closed and look like they’re completely zenned out.”
A second theory is that cats knead as a form of marking you as their own. Cats have scent glands in their faces and paws. When felines rub their faces and/or paws (scratching or not) on any surface be it furniture or a person, they are leaving their scent. Cats also sweat from their paws which leaves that smell if they rub them against something, says Dr. Nelson. The same goes for kneading.
A final idea is that cats knead to help soften their bed. This behavior would be a throwback to the common house cats’ wildcat ancestors that did not have the same type of environmental comforts to which our cats are accustomed. Pushing the grass or ground may have helped soften it in order to “get their bed just right,” says Dr. Nelson.
If your cat still has its claws, kneading could be annoying, painful and potentially destructive as their claws dig into your lap or the furniture. The key in this case is not to curb the behavior, but rather to keep your cat’s nails trimmed.
This article was adapted from a Reader’s Digest story by Marissa Laliberte titled “What’s Up with That Weird Kneading Cats Do?”