by K Marie Alto August 17, 2022 10 min read
How often do you sit around the house, enjoying a lazy afternoon, and find your cat pushing their way onto your lap or chest?
They push their head up under your chin, rumbling like an engine in the distance, trilling and closing their eyes when you scratch their ears. Then you feel it; the slow, rhythmic as your little bundle of fuzzy joy starts to knead on your lap before settling in for a cozy nap (probably right when you need to get up to pee).
Kneading is when your cat pushes out and pulls in his front paws against something that bounces back such as a pillow, a mattress, your lap or belly. The motion alternates between the right and left paw.
While kneading is still not well understood by science, raising 4 happy cats from kittens to adulthood has taught me a few things about this intriguing behavior and, today I’m going to talk about why cats knead.
From the ABC's of cat kneading to some of the most common reasons for this fascinating and cute behavior. Let’s get to it.
As always, if you are looking for more cat behavior guides🤓, make sure not to miss the read more section at the bottom or, search our blog by topic. Spoiler alert, our blog is packed 📚 with pet parent resources.
If you already have a kitty at home, you likely know the feeling of your fur baby kneading, or "making biscuits."
But, if you’re a newbie, no worries, I’ve got your covered. Kneading is a behavior cats and kittens make when they alternate a kind of pressing action with their paws .
It's named after the actions we humans do when making bread, kneading dough through rhythmic push-and-pull actions.
If this concept is new to you, check out this cute video for a visual.
Cat Kneading Is So Satisfying; 3 min Video
Isn’t that the cutest thing in the world?
You’ll notice that kneading is often accompanied by purring. Some kitties will suck on the fabric or even drool while kneading! Adorable right? The takeaway here is that a kneading cat is a happy cat.
It’s worth noting that not all cats knead, and kneading behavior is different from cat to cat. Most use just their two front paws, while some others use all four. Some push out their claws, while others keep them comfortably retracted.
Some knead your stomach almost exclusively, while others can be found kneading pillows, blankets, couch cushions, and anything else soft that they happen to be standing on.
Kneading isn't well-understood. Cat behaviorists – what a fun job! – are still learning why they do what they do and what goes through those funny little heads of theirs. One thing we do know for sure, kneading is an instinctive trait and begins when cats are kittens.
Kneading has an evolutionary source, and it comes from the time your cat spends as a tiny, adorable kitten.
Cats are mammals, which means they give birth to live babies (rather than eggs, try not to picture cat eggs) and nurse them with milk produced in their mammary glands.
You've surely seen videos of a proud momma cat on her side while her pile of fuzzy beans crawl over her, seeking out her milk bar.
When kittens are born, they are both blind and deaf, but they do have the ability to smell to head to momma’s milk bar for nourishment. Instinctively, kittens will begin pressing on their mother’s belly while they nurse to stimulate the flow of milk.
As kittens nurse they get full bellies and then it’s time for a nap. They learn at an early age to associate the kneading behavior with the reward of their mother’s milk.
Many experts agree the kneading behavior is carried over into adulthood.
"It's possible the positive and pleasurable association gets cemented from kittenhood, long after they've stopped suckling." Dr. Rebecca Greenstein.
Another reason your cat might knead is actually a kind of behavioral training.
Training an animal usually involves watching for a behavior you want to reinforce and rewarding them when they do it. Eventually, they learn that the behavior means a good thing is coming, so they do that behavior more.
Even the absence of a behavior can result in a reward, and that's how you train away bad behaviors. A good example is when you’re getting your fur baby used to a care routine or getting them acclimated to a carrier.
Now consider the origin of kneading behavior. Kittens make biscuits only when they're in the comforting presence and safety of their mother, and when they do it, they're rewarded with the ultimate treat, mother's milk. What stronger possible association could there be?
“When your cat is spending some time cuddling on your lap, you may notice her kneading (aka “making biscuits”), another sign of enjoyment, because it mimics feeding behavior in nursing kittens.”- Best Friends.org
That's why your fur baby loves to knead you. When they're in your presence, they feel comfort, and they're often rewarded with something like a few pleasant scritches or a treat you have on hand. Of course they're going to keep kneading!
Another possible reason for kneading is because cats are territorial animals.
If your fur baby is handy, take a close look at those fuzzy little paws. My gosh, those toe beans are so cute, right? Well, they're more than just pads for the feet; they also have tiny scent glands hidden between them.
We all know that when our feline friends butt their faces into ours, brushing past us, they're leaving their scent.
It's a kind of scent marking cats do to leave pheromones all over the place, specifically to mark territory for themselves. They'll mark door frames, furniture, and yes, even their parents.
Well, kneading is actually potentially serving the same purpose.
Those tiny little scent glands in their paws come into play both during kneading and when they're scratching at something; they're marking it. Each little step is pushing some of that scent into your shirt, pants, blanket, or belly.
Of course, your casually-domesticated cat isn't going to need to fight to defend this territory.
Then again, if you've ever tried to introduce a new cat, you know they might not get along, and they'll claim specific rooms and items as their own.
"Cats are strongly driven by scent-related communication, relying on scent markers to claim territory and leave other cats a message. Your cat has scent glands in her paws, and scratching and kneading deposits her scent, letting other animals know she was there.” - American Animal Hospital Association.
That's also why, when you spend time hanging out with one cat, another might not want to join you for a nap.
Another possible reason for kneading is pretty much the same as why dogs do that cute little circle in place before they settle in for a nap. They're making a comfortable little bed to lay on!
Fluffy environments, like a stomach, a pillow, or a blanket, can be shuffled around a bit while your fur baby gets settled.
Their ancestral wild cats use the pushing and prodding to help identify things that might be lurking under the surface (like pests or lumps) and can smooth out a surface for their nap.
So, while your kitty might be using their kneading behavior to make their bed more comfy, you and I both know that cats aren’t averse to napping in completely uncomfortable positions if they feel like it!
Cats may also knead as a way to stretch before (or after) a nap.
Just like how you uncurl from a nap and give a big stretchy, so too will your cat want to limber up those muscles and work out the kinks before they go about their business (or curl up for another snooze).
Watch your cat when they wake up, have you ever noticed them take the position like the kitty in the picture above stretching out their arms and then doing a little brief kneading motion?
By gripping into a surface they might be getting a little extra stretch after their long nap.
There is also some speculation that is limited to just the female felines, and that is they knead when they're intact and in heat.
They might use kneading when they're trying to attract a nearby male to do their deed.
You’re a responsible pet parent and already have your kitty spade, so you don’t have to worry about all the complications that come with a female in heat.
Most of you probably aren't worried about your fur baby making biscuits, but you might wonder if it's really natural or if it could be a cause for concern. If it's a kitten behavior, is it bad for an adult cat to do it?
We know from the discussion above, that kneading in adult cats is purrfectly normal.
It's a natural expression when your fur baby is feeling particularly cozy and trusting, so if they're kneading you (or just around you), it means they're loving and happy to be there.
This innate behavior is not something you should try to discourage. With that said, there is a bit of a potential dark side to kneading.
While many cats leave their claws mostly retracted when they knead, some of them don't. If they push those claws out while kneading, they can get caught in your shirt, in a blanket, in the carpet, or even in your skin! Yowch!
In fact, this behavior is common enough that some pet scientists have given it a name: Felis Punctatus. A literal translation meaning cat punctures!
Most of the time, a few pokes it's not terribly harmful sometimes, though, dirty paws or dirty skin or just the usual microflora of life get caught up in the relationship between you and your fur baby, and that's where infections can spring up.
On a less health related note, cat claws getting snagged in your favorite shirt or blanket can lead to pilling, runs, rips, and tears.
As if it's not enough that they're leaving shed fur behind on everything, right? It's just part of being a pet parent.
If kneading is causing problems, the last thing you want to do is punish your fur baby for it. For one thing, negative reinforcement doesn’t work, and it’s likely you’ll just cause trust issues with your kitty.
For another, you're essentially punishing your fur baby for being comfortable around you, and that's a sure-fire way to destroy your relationship with them.
That said, there are a few things you can do.
“Keep the nails trimmed so it’s not painful and not messing up your blanket or your couch.” Dr. Katy Nelson, DVM.
Again, though, most of the time, a kneading cat isn't going to be a problem. Your fuzzy little friend is just trying to show how comfortable they are with you, and you're generally going to enjoy the expression of love and will be fine letting them do their thing.
Does your cat love to knead? Will they knead anything, or do they beeline for your belly when they do? Do they keep their claws in, or put them out? Be sure to let me know in the comments, because I just love hearing all about your fur babies and the stories their antics create!
Read More Cat Behavior Guides
One more thing, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA (or anywhere but in China), 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!
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K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 30K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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