Why Do Cats Knead?

It never fails. You sit down on the couch for an evening of nonstop streaming of your favorite series or — even better — with a book and a cup of tea. And here comes your furry feline friend with an intent look on her face and a purr at the ready.

She happily places her soft paw pads just so on your leg and starts kneading. It’s cute, even if it does kind of hurt sometimes. Mostly because she’s so dang happy. But why? Why do cats knead? And is it just your cat or do other cats knead too?

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What Is Cat Kneading?

A cat kneads for several reasons (more on that in a second) but what is kneading? Simply put, cat kneading is when your cat “massages” something with her front paws or even all four paws. Her front paws extend and retract, one paw at a time.

Cat’s kneading was named for its likeness to kneading dough. You’ve likely seen your cat kneading and wondered if it’s a common behavior or not.

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Baby, We Were Born to Knead

Kittens are born with an instinct to knead. As tiny little fuzzballs, kittens knead their mother’s belly while they nurse. This action helps stimulate milk production to feed the baby kittens. This is called “milk treading,” which is less adorable than the more common term “making biscuits.” While they’re tucked up against mother’s teat, the kittens are warm and content.

Even after kittens are weaned, they continue kneading when they’re happy. (Some adult cats get really into it and knead with their front paws and back paws.)

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People used to believe that adult cats’ kneading behavior was because they were weaned too early, but that seems unlikely. Almost all cats knead, no matter when they were weaned. Many cats knead even if they grow up in the same house along with their mom.

I Put a Scent on You

There are other reasons why cats have this adorable behavior, though. Cats have scent glands near their cheeks, at the base of their tail and — you guessed it — in the pads of their paws. Cats knead blankets, pillows or your stomach as you lie on the couch watching Netflix together to leave behind a trace of their particular scent — in other words, mark their territory. She’s marked you and probably every soft surface in the house as hers, and she’s not wrong.

There’s another theory about cat kneading. This one says that this action comes from their wild ancestors who lived outdoors, with nary a pillow or lap to their name. They would knead to trample tall grass and rough up the ground to make it soft enough for sleeping. It’s similar to the theory about why dogs turn around in circles before settling down to sleep.

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When a cat uses her claws while she kneads soft objects (like your couch), it’s tempting to punish her. But cats need to knead; it’s an instinctive behavior that means she’s happy, so punishment is not a great idea here. Instead, see if you can gently press your cat down to a laying position. She’ll likely go to sleep. If her kneading is problematic for your skin or upholstery, keep her claws trimmed or invest in plastic claw sheathes. And never declaw her.

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