If you own a cat, you have more than likely gotten the joy of watching it tentatively walk onto a pile of blankets and softly press its paws on the surface. Or, your cat may have even come up and done this on you!
When your cat repeatedly presses its paws in an alternating motion, it is doing something called kneading. As adorable as it is, you may be wondering, what is this behavior, and why do cats do it for seemingly no reason?
Which cats knead?
Your cat may knead all the time, or your cat may never knead at all. Kneading is common in both young and adult cats, with the behavior often carrying on throughout its life. Usually, cats will knead just before settling down to be pet or before getting comfortable and taking a nap.
Some cats do it differently than others. Your cat may only knead with its two front paws or with all four simultaneously. It may extend and retract its claws while kneading, or it may not, pressing only with its paw pads.
You may also notice that your cat purrs and shows signs of happiness or comfort while kneading. All cats will knead in their own unique way, but the behavior is quite unmistakable.
The root of kneading
Kneading is a motion that kittens do shortly after birth. They knead near their mother’s teat as a way to stimulate milk production so they can be fed. Kneading is an instinctual behavior that they are not taught.
Experts believe that, to cats, kneading is linked with comfort, since the act of nursing as a kitten is comforting and nurturing. As they age, cats may continue to knead soft surfaces, like pillows, blankets and even your lap, because they associate those things with similar comfort and nurture.
This also might explain why cats tend to knead their owners while they are being petted. Kneading’s link to affection and comfort may lead your cat to knead on you to show you love in return. Kneading could also be used as a way to self-soothe when it’s bored, stressed or anxious.
Other experts think that kneading may also have some physical and environmental benefits, as well as emotional, for cats. The alternating peddling motion your cat does with its legs may help it stretch. The behavior might also help it create the most comfortable spot to lay down in; this harkens back to a time when feral cats had to make their beds in grass and foliage. You might think of kneading as your cat’s way of fluffing the pillows!
Finally, it is possible that cats use kneading as a way to mark their “territory,” so to speak. Cats have glands at the bottom of their paws that can deposit scents. By kneading, your cat may be displaying to other animals that this space (or human) is theirs.
What if my cat hurts while it kneads?
While it can be sweet to see your cat kneading on your legs or lap while getting some cuddles, it can also be painful if it likes to extend its claws while it does it. Repetitive scratches can make you not want to be the source of your cat’s kneading affection, whether it is intentional or not.
If your cat tends to use its nails while it kneads, make sure you are keeping its nails cut short through regular trims. If left untouched, your cat’s claws can become quite sharp and hurt much more than if they are cut shorter and blunter.
Once every one or two weeks, trim your cat’s nails (but be mindful of cutting too short). If your cat isn’t used to nail trimming, you may need the help of a groomer or your vet. With practice and patience (and a lot of treats!), you should be able to get your cat used to having its nails trimmed so you can avoid the pain of kneading.
Additionally, you can try keeping a soft blanket or towel on your lap when your cat wants to knead. This can create a barrier between your cat’s nails and your legs so scratches are not as common. Avoid using knit blankets that have holes so your cat’s nails don’t get stuck.
It’s important to never punish your cat for kneading. Like scratching, kneading is an instinctual, normal behavior done out of innocence. If you’re concerned about your cat scratching you or other surfaces while kneading, use positive reinforcement to redirect the behavior, or simply move it away so that it stops.
Ultimately, kneading is an innate behavior that your cat most likely does to show love and get comfortable. Unless the kneading is causing pain or destruction, you can let your cat continue to knead to its heart’s content.