You’re lying on the couch and, all of a sudden, your cat starts moving their paws back and forth on your chest while purring and looking at you with sleepy eyes, or maybe giving you a slow blink. This behavior is called “kneading” and it may seem quite strange at first.
So why then do cats love to perform this kittenish behavior? Read on to learn more about this sign of ultimate kitty affection.
What Is Kneading?
Kneading is a natural part of cat behavior. A cat will usually knead by pushing their front paws into a soft object altering pressure between the paws. It could be a blanket, a pillow, or a part of your own body. The reason it’s called “kneading” is that the motion is somewhat similar to the process of kneading dough. In fact, some people refer to this as “making biscuits.”1
Whenever a cat gets to a favorite place and is feeling really good, there’s a good chance they’ll soon start kneading. They’ll usually purr while they’re doing it – especially if they’re being petted. Also, kneading isn’t limited to age. While most people associate kneading with kittens, cats do it no matter how old they are.
Different cats have different ways of kneading. Some will just use their front paws, while others will use all four. Some cats use their claws (ouch!) while others don’t.2
So What Makes Cats Knead?
That’s a great question. Unfortunately, there’s no real answer. Animal behaviorists, however, do have a few theories of why cats love to do this. Here are just a few of the best guesses.
Going Back To “Kittenhood”
The most common hypothesis is that kneading is an adult cat’s way of sort of going back in time to when they were a kitten. Kittens perform the kneading motion in order to help produce milk from their mother. Older cats, the theory goes, associate kneading with comfort – the feeling they had when they were nursing. Some cats will even suck while they knead – which gives some credence to this line of thought.3
It Has To Do With Their Wild Ancestors
Some believe that cat kneading has something to do with the time before cats became domesticated pets. When ancient cats looked for a place to sleep or give birth, they may have patted down plants or other types of foliage in order to make a soft place to settle down. Kneading could be instinctive – cats do it before getting cozy.
They’re Activating Their Scent Glands
There’s yet another potential reason why cats knead: their paws. When your cat starts kneading, whether it’s on you or on any soft surfaces around your home, that’s their way of marking their territory. The kneading activates glands on the paw pads, leaving a tiny bit of their unique scent behind.4
Cats who knead, according to the scent gland theory, are basically making the statement that whatever they knead is theirs. You can’t notice the scent yourself, but they can – and so can any other cats in the area. The kitty is sending a signal that this is their spot and no one else’s. Other cats can go find some other spot to claim.5
But, there are a few other potential reasons why a cat will knead, including:
- A cat does this in order to stretch their muscles after a long nap; it helps keep them limber.
- When female cats knead while lying on their side, that could be their way of, well, advertising for a mate.6
Cats Show Affection In Other Ways As Well
It’s safe to consider your cat’s kneading behavior as a sign of affection. In addition to kneading, your kitty will show affection by doing things such as purring, holding their tails straight up, and even grooming you. Here’s a closer look at some of the other signs your cat loves you.
- Purring – Cats will sometimes purr when they’re not feeling well or they’re scared. Most of the time, though, purring means contentment – they love snuggling with you in the bed or on the couch.
- Grooming – If you notice your cat starting to lick you, don’t freak out or try to pull away. It means your cat considers you a part of the litter, and will groom you just like they would groom their brothers, sisters, or kittens.
- A pointed tail – Does your cat hold their tail straight up in the air when you come home? This is a type of body language that means they’re glad you’re back.7
Saving Your Lap From Kitty’s Kneading Claws
As much as we love our cats, and as cute as we think their kneading behavior may be, it can downright hurt at times. There are, however, a few things you can do to reduce your discomfort.
The more comfy and happy your cat is while kneading, the harder they will push down – and the more painful it will be as a result. But remember that your cat is showing affection, so never punish them for doing this. If the kneading gets out of control, try putting something soft, like a towel or a blanket, between their nails and your skin.8
Also, don’t be hesitant to move the cat if their kneading gets too bothersome. You could also try grabbing a toy to get their attention. Trimming their nails on a regular basis can reduce your discomfort as well.
Bonus: Other Fun Facts About Your Cat’s Paws
There are a lot of other interesting ways cats use their paws other than kneading. Your cat’s paws are actually pretty amazing when you think about it. Here are just a few fun facts you might find interesting.
- Have you ever noticed that your cat puts up a good fuss when you touch their paws? The reason is that the pads on their paws are very sensitive. They contain a large number of nerves that help them keep their balance, stalk prey, and more. The pads are easily injured by hot or cold surfaces.
- Cats actually walk on their tiptoes. There’s a good reason, of course. They do this because it helps with hunting. It increases their speed and makes their strides longer. In addition, it makes them walk very quietly – that makes it difficult for prey to know they’re nearby.
- Just like most humans have a dominant right or left arm, most cats have a dominant right or left front paw. There are some exceptions – there are ambidextrous cats. According to research, males tend to use their right paw more, and females are more left-paw dominant.9
Cats are fascinating creatures. Whether they’re kneading, purring, or doing just about anything else, it can be a lot of fun just watching and listening to them. It’s just another reason to take the time to truly appreciate your special family member.
Exercises For Cats (Especially Sedentary Cats)
Tips On How To Approach A Cat And Get Yourself Introduced
Homemade DIY Cat Litter Boxes For Cat Parents