5 Reasons Felines Feel the Need to Knead
Updated: May 27
For more than a decade, I have been caring for pets of all kinds. Each exhibits behavior distinctly associated with their species.
Curious cat behaviors like scratching, purring, and appropriating the cardboard box you just discarded after unloading the loot from your most recent Costco run are a few that fascinate me. However, kneading, or as some call it “making biscuits,” is one that I consider the most endearing of all.
But why do cats such that my feline friend above demonstrates, Sweety (the 3 y/o female Russian Blue Mix), feel the need to knead?
By conducting a little research, I found five fundamental reasons why cats engage in this activity. Here’s what I found to set the record straight:
1. It’s Instinctual - They Were Born This Way
According to Animal Planet, it’s an instinctive trait. Kittens knead their mother’s belly as they snuggle close to nurse, as the motion stimulates the flow of milk from her nipples.
Like me, maybe you’ve heard, and even believed, the theory that claims kneading cats were separated from or weaned from their mothers too early. Therefore, they continue the infantile behavior into adulthood.
Spoiler alert: nearly all adult cats knead, regardless of how or when they weaned.
2. They Can’t Say It so They Show It - Yes, They Really Do Love You
What if your cat likes to knead people – people such as you!? If your cat is curled up and kneading your lap or tummy while you’re petting him, PetMD says he’s returning your affection. He’s even telling you he loves you right back.
Other experts go on to say that your fluffy friend might be recalling happy memories of its kittenhood. Even if this behavior is uncomfortable for you, your kitty doesn’t intend to inflict any pain. In fact, the action is typically relaxed and happy.
"The reflexive action of pushing the paws in and out on a soft surface harkens back to a time of pure pleasure: when a cat is snuggled up to his mother, safe and warm, kneading as he drinks her milk. A kneading cat is the epitome of contentment [...] In most cases, it continues throughout the cat's life, appearing during times of relaxation. We can suppose that the cat who kneads is remembering kittenhood."
3. They’re Preparing A Place to Rest
PetMD posits another kneading theory that traces its roots to our domestic cats' wild ancestors. Big untamed species would knead grass to create a soft sleeping spot - sort of like the dog circling before they settle. So, if your cat is kneading your favorite blanket, lay down and relax… because that's likely what your feline is preparing to do.
4. They’re Marking Territory Claiming YOU as THEIR Human
Cats have scent glands on their cheeks and their paw pads. When they knead, the glands on their paws release their scent wherever they are pressing down. So when your cat is on your lap kneading your thighs, he or she is actually marking their territory.
But do they mark everyone they meet? The answer is no.
HealthyPets says that cats prefer to knead people who feed, play, groom and clean their litter box for them. Cats bond more to one individual over others because the acts of feeding, playing, grooming, and cleaning after a cat for the most part make a cat feel more connected to that individual.
5. They Knead When They Need You
Some cats are more needy and knead more than others. It’s an anxious cat’s way of seeking contact comfort.
Some feline stressors include sudden changes, moving to a new home, a car ride, or neighborhood.
Many cats with no anxiety issues start this behavior as a self-comforting ritual. Check out Cat Body, Cat Mind by Dr, Michael W. Fox to learn more.
Nothing beats check-in visits where cats greet me by, essentially, scratching up my leg, but also kneading me. We don’t speak the same language, however, pay attention. You'll find that cats communicate with us quite effectively in fact.
"Like all mammals, cats are extremely sensitive and responsive to touch. For them, touch is an important means of communication. Pleasing touch, like petting, can stimulate kneading behaviors. A female for example kneads in anticipation of mating. Not surprisingly the cats forepaws are unusually sensitive. For humans, a few things are as pleasurable as massage given by a cat's soft pause. Now, if only we could teach our cats to keep those paws extended and to work sore shoulders and backs." - Kim Campbell Thornton, Why Do Cats Do That?
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