Why Do Cats Knead?

| |

If you’ve ever been around a relaxed and happy cat, you many have notice them engage in the act of kneading, often accompanied by strong purring.

What is Kneading?

Kneading is a common habit among domestic cats in which they push out and pull in their front paws, often alternating between the right and left limbs, while relaxed. The rhythmic back and forth of the motion is also affectionately known as “making biscuits” due to its similarity to kneading dough.

It’s common to notice it while cats are settling down to sleep or being petted. But what exactly does it imply?

Why do cats knead, do wild cats do the same, and is it the sign of affection we think it is?

An orange tabby sleeping on his side.
Cats often knead when settling down to relax or sleep.

Why do some cats knead? 

The short answer here is that while kneading is commonly associated with affection and a sign of bonding, there could be other reasons for it. Kneading could be a sign of love, comfort, or simply a way for the cat to mark their territory.

What we do know is that this is a common behavior seen in a range of breeds and their wild cousins are also observed doing so. So, whatever the specific reason for your cat’s kneading behavior, they are certainly not alone. 

Do cats knead out of affection?

This is a common question from cat owners because they want to believe that this behavior is a clear signal that their cat loves them. While there are other reasons for kneading, affection is one of the reasons why cats engage in this behavior.

Cats are known to knead when they feel comfortable, particularly when they are in their bed or your lap getting petted. Some cats will also perform similar motions when spending quality time together. 

Why does my cat knead my partner more than me?

If you have ever felt left out because the family cat kneads while in the laps of other people and not you, you are not alone. Many couples will see a difference in the behavior of their cat depending on who they are with.

This often happens because the cat has a stronger bond with that individual. Perhaps they are the primary caregiver and the cat is grateful for food given by them. This reinforces the idea that cats knead through affection. However, we need to consider the following about wild big cats. 

Some wild cats also knead

Wild cats, including some of the more ferocious big cats, have been seen kneading with the same action in their front legs. In some cases, this is with animals in zoological parks, so there may be a link between kneading and comfort there. But, there are also cats that do the same in the wild. So, how does this relate to the behavior of our pet cats? Does it mean that domestic cat kneading behavior may have a different cause?

Other theories as to why cats knead

There are other theories as to why cats paw at their bedding, the laps of their owners, or at the bodies or other cats they get along with. They include the following:

~ the cat is using the pressure from the kneading motion to activate scent glands and mark its territory

~ the cat is stretching its muscles to get more comfortable or to work out any stiffness 

~ the cat is patting down the ground to improve its sleeping surface. 

Black cat sleeping with its front paw stretched out.
Cats have scent glands between their toes, leading some to believe that when they knead, they are also putting a familiar, comforting scent where they rest.

If you own a cat, it is understandable if either of these possible reasons disappoints you. Going from believing that this is a sign of love to believing that you are being marked as property could be a shock. They are, however, encouraging signs.

Cats that paw the legs of their humans for scent marking will still have a strong attachment and a desire to stop other cats from getting near. It is a different sort of love, but it is still love.

As for their bedding, it makes sense for cats to want to mark something so precious and vital for their well-being. This is where they are meant to feel secure at night and it makes sense for them to try and warn off any potential threats or rivals. This is still true even if their rival is an overly friendly canine that shares their room. 

As for the idea of cats simply trying to get more comfortable, both ideas make a lot of sense when looking at the relationship between domestic and big cats. Both groups are sure to find relief from stretching out their legs to ease cramps or muscle fatigue. This could be from settling down after a long hunt or a long day exploring their home.

Also, wild cats can pat down the ground and grass before bed for a softer and flatter sleeping area. Domestic cats may instinctively do the same even though they have a padded cushion. On the subject of instinct, there is one final important point. Cats instinctively use this kneading motion from birth. 

Finally, we can’t forget that kitten will use this motion from a very young age without thinking about it. They use this alternating motion with their paws to stimulate the flow of milk as they suckle from their mother’s teat. It is thought that any ongoing kneading behavior into adulthood links back to this trait.

There is that association between the comfort and security of being with an owner, or in a safe bed, and the same feelings experienced when cared for by their mother. So, any petting and love from you may trigger that same kneading motion so the cat can encourage more of what they desire. 

Why do some cats knead and other cats don’t? 

The takeaway here is that all cats are different and there is no single explanation for this cat behavior. Some animals will knead often as they have that strong connection between the motion and feelings of love and security. Others will only do so as they mimic wild cousins and mark their territory or improve their comfort levels. Then, some grow out of it almost entirely. You may never know precisely why your cat kneads you, but you can still appreciate it. 

References

Albright, J. (2021, June 14). Why do cats knead with their paws? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-do-cats-knead-with-their-paws-156254

Related

Previous

What are Tabby Cats?

Why Do Cats Sleep With Their Tongues Out?

Next