Why Do Cats Knead?

Last Updated 31 AUG 2021

This article is written by Pet Circle Veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc.

If you're a cat parent, you may have witnessed your fur baby taking part in an unusual behaviour known as 'kneading'. This weird - and downright adorable - behaviour is one of the least understood behaviours elicited by the domestic cat.

Skip to a section:

1. What is Kneading?

2. Why Do Cats Knead?

3. Further Reading

1. What is kneading?

A compilation of cats kneading. Credit: Best Meow via Youtube

The term 'kneading' refers to the massage-like pressing of each paw into a soft surface, alternating between left and right paw in a smooth, soothing rhythm. The action closely resembles a baker kneading dough, which is why many people call it 'kneading dough' or 'baking biscuits'. (other fun names for it are 'making paddycakes' and a 'shi-cat-su massage')

Every kitty has their own style of kneading. Some cats will bite or suckle on a blanket while deep in the massage zone, and some will purr intensely. Some cats like to be quite gentle with their kneading, pushing mostly with their squishy little toe beans, but others like to dig their claws in and get a nice deep nail-shedding scritch-scratch. Unfortunately, for many cats, the more 'into' the knead, the deeper and more intense their scratching

Which kneader is your kitty?

  • The Gentle Petal: This sweet little angel kneads with soft, soothing motions, using only the squishiest most precious little toe beans. The Gentle Petal wants you to feel loved and is practically saying 'how's the pressure? Would you like some aromatherapy too?'
  • The drooler: A bit of a special little pumpkin, The Drooler will get so into their kneading they'll forget to swallow their own saliva. They may also be reminded of their mama's milk and the thought invokes some serious droolage. Who knows? Try not to embarass The Drooler by pointing or laughing - he is still a proud feline afterall and will clean himself up once his intense knead sesh is over.
  • The Porcupine: This spiky little kneader is anything but gentle. The Porcupine will dig her claws right in, and rip them out with gusto. It's as if she's saying 'you are nothing but a scratching post, peasant'. You may be left nursing some serious scratches, so be sure to keep a nice thick blanket around to shield your precious human skin.
  • The Suckler: This special petal thinks he's still a kitten, and will suckle on bits of blanket as he kneads. He may need a mother figure in his life, he may need years of therapy - either way, always treat with lots of love and attention.
  • The Hypnosis Guru: Nothing will distract the Hypnosis Guru from her extra-worldly kneading trance. A deeply spiritual being, The Hypnosis Guru will get so lost in the Knead Universe that her eyes may become fixed and intensely glazed over. Interrupting this psychic phenomenon can result in total universal implosion - so always treat with caution.

2. Why Do Cats Knead?

As yet, we aren't exactly sure why cats knead. But there are a few theories. Keep in mind that the feline psyche is a complex thing - one cat's reason for kneading could be different to another's.

1. Are you Mummy?

Your kitty may be kneading due to a leftover instinct from kittenhood. Young kittens will knead on their mother's teats in order to stimulate milk production. Suckling kittens are often obsered giving their mum a mini massage while they drink.

This doesn't necessarily mean that your adult cat sees you as their 'mother'. Nor does it mean that your cat expects to express milk from you (or your blanket)! What is more likely is that your cat learned to associate the act of kneading with comfort, safety, and a tasty milk reward. Therefore when they feel comfortable and cosy, they knead as a means of association.

2. Staking their Claim

Cats have scent glands on their paws which release scent and pheronomes when they knead or scratch a surface. Leaving their scent on objects is one way that cats mark their territory. This means that kneading might be your kitty marking you as 'their own'. Try to take it as a compliment - clearly your fur baby sees you as a commodity that they want other cats to keep their 'paws off'!

3. An expression of love

Kneading is often associated with feelings of comfort and relaxation, so it makes sense that cats will only knead on their 'favourite' people. If you are lucky enough to receive a kneading massage from a cat, it means they are relaxed and comfortable with you.

Therefore, kneading is generally interpreted as one way that your cat 'shows love'. There are many ways that felines show humans love, and kneading may just be the most adorble of them all.

4. Making the Bed

Another theory is that cats like to knead as a leftover instinct from their wild cat days. Wild cats will press their paws down into soft grass before settling in for a snooze. So if your kitty is doing this on your lap it might be a sign they think your lap looks nap-worthy!

5. Stretchy Stretch Stretch!

As any cat parent knows, cats are yoga pros and love pushing the boundaries of their innate flexibilities. Kneading is one of the many ways cats keep themselves loose and flexible. Think about it — if your back is stiff, it feels good to grab onto a surface and pull against it.

6. Release that extra stress

The fact that our feline friends can experience stress might seem a bit weird, as their 'daily grind' involves around 70% sleeping on soft surfaces, with food and litter provided for, and zero responsibilities. I mean, who wouldn't want the carefree life of a pet cat?

But despite their somewhat envious lifestyle, pet cats can still experience stress in response to many situations such as house visitors, new pets, children, new furniture, or neighbouring cats.

Kneading may be one way your kitty releases stress, partly because it helps release scent from the marking glands in their feet, and partly because it usually accompanies purring, which releases positive endorphins.

Ultimately, the bond between cats and (their) humans is a special one, and kneading is just one part of the relationship that makes it ever more unique.

3. Further Reading

Want to read more? Check out our other articles:

Why Do Cats Purr?

5 Reasons to Adopt An Adult Cat

Cat Food Buying Guide

Complete New Kitten Guide

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