Why Do Cats Knead？
Kneading is a common behaviour in cats, but it’s also a puzzling one. The reasons a cat kneads can range from being content to self-soothing, and kitten instincts even play a part. Whether your cat kneads here, there, or on your lap—we’ve rounded up the reasons behind this curious cat behaviour. Plus, should you stop your cat from kneading when her claws become too much? Probably not, experts say, but we have solutions to help.
10 Reasons Your Cat Needs To Knead
Kneading is when cats push their paws down on a soft surface, alternating each one—like the action of kneading dough before putting it into the oven. Not all cats do this, and some use their claws while others don’t. Some cats knead their humans, and some stick to softer surfaces like blankets or the carpet. It all depends on your pet.
The list of where and how cats knead is almost as long as the reasons why cats knead:
One explanation for kneading is your cat is in the “mummy zone,” says Dr. Mikel Delgado, a cat behaviour consultant and postdoctoral fellow at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis. “It’s a likely throwback to happy behaviour from the days of kittenhood. Kneading is what kittens do when they are nursing to encourage the release of milk from mum,” she says.
Kittens are rewarded with food for their kneading behaviour and, sometimes, grown-up kneading might be accompanied by suckling or a love bite. The reward stops once they are weaned. But cats keep the positive association, and the behaviour becomes a happy habit throughout life.
How do you respond when your cat climbs up on your lap to perform their baker-like antics? Chances are that you’ve given them attention—either in the form of petting or moving them aside. This positive association of “make dough on a human’s lap, get attention” has trained your cat to repeat the behaviour.
3. Showing Affection
Cats have plenty of ways they show affection—and depending on the situation, kneading could be one of them. Like nursing from their mum, your cat feels safe and cared for with you, Dr. Delgado says. In turn, their kitten instincts kick in and they’re baking up a storm on your lap!
4. Territory Marking
Cats have scent glands on the bottom of their paws, which they use to mark their territory. Typically, a cat will scratch surfaces with their claws, leaving behind their scent, Dr. Delgado explains. Whether they purposely leave behind territory-marking scents while kneading with their paws, that’s up for debate.
If your cat’s kneading comes with soft eyes, slow blinking, and lots of purrs—that is one relaxed loaf. No worries here, your cat is uber content and might settle down for a catnap.
Kneading could be a comforting, self-soothing behaviour. “A cat who is kneading due to stress might not fall asleep or relax during kneading,” Dr. Delgado says. Other signs that your cat is kneading to self-soothe includes:
- Tail flicking
- Increased respiratory rate
- Pinned back eyes
- Dilated pupils
- Holding their tail tight against their body
Everyone needs a good stretch every now and then—and that includes your cat. Kneading and pressing their paws against a surface is one way cats get a good stretch throughout their muscles. You could think of your cat’s “bread making” as a little yoga session. Or, should we say, meowoga session.
8. Making the bed
Your happy house cat descends from wild ancestors, not unlike today’s lions and tigers. Their wild ancestors would knead the grass, making the ground more comfortable before grabbing some shut-eye. In fact, make a trip to the zoo and you might spot a much larger cat performing this same behaviour. If you notice your cat kneading the blanket before they go to sleep, they may be mimicking the behaviour of their great-great-grandcats.
Cats in heat exhibit a lot of unusual behaviours—like yowling at night and sticking their hindquarters in the air. Another thing that happens is an increase in affection. The could translate to more kneading on your lap. Or, females in heat are often seen lying on their sides, kneading the air.
Neutering your cat will put an end to the promiscuous kneading—and has numerous other benefits, too.
If your female cat showed signs of heat about 60 to 63 days ago, got really big, and is now pretending to make biscuits in her queening box—she might be in labour. One of the first stages of labour includes “making a nest” or arranging an area using her paws to knead.
When Kneading Could Be A Problem And What To Do
“Kneading is a natural behaviour and there’s no reason to stop your cat from doing it,” Dr. Delgado says. But your cat probably isn’t the best massage therapist (claws!). So, when the kneading gets excessive or painful, here are some tips.
Your cat’s claws cause injury or damage
My mum lovingly calls her grandkitties’ biscuit-making “needling”—and she’s not wrong. To prevent painful kneading on your lap, keep your cat’s nails trimmed. This makes for more enjoyable cuddles with your cat. Plus, properly trimmed claws will prevent ingrown nails and keep your furniture safe from wandering paws.
If you find freshly trimmed nails still cause havoc to your lap, add a cosy blanket between yourself and your cat. Or, gently stand up and walk away so your cat can’t sit on your lap.
Your cat won’t stop kneading
Long periods of happy kneading aren’t anything to worry about—if they’re not accompanied by other changes in behaviour. “Cats are different in how long they like to knead. Some knead just a few times, and others really get into it,” Dr. Delgado says. There’s not really any known reason why some cats knead continuously while others promptly begin to snooze.
If the kneading on your lap becomes too much, encourage your cat to move to an appropriate surface like a blanket. Gently scooch her over or coax her with a treat or toy. Use positive reinforcement training by rewarding her with treats, and verbal or physical praise, when she kneads on the wanted surface.
Your cat is showing signs of stress
Your cat could become stressed over several things—like a new member of the household, a change in schedule, or an underlying health condition. Checking in with your vet is a good idea at the first sign of a change in behaviour.
After ruling out a more serious health condition, Dr. Delgado says you can relieve your cat’s stress with these tips:
- When travelling or in a new environment, provide familiar objects like a favourite bed, blanket, or toy.
- Stick to a regular feeding, play, and bedtime schedule as much as possible.
- Provide daily interactive playtime and other forms of enrichment for your cat.
- Provide your cat with choices and let her make them. This might include giving her more than one cosy bed for napping and letting her decide when she would like to be petted or handled.
- Try a calming aid, like pheromones or catnip.
When in doubt, ask your vet or a feline behavioural specialist how you can get your kitty back to happy kneading.
Kneading is an enduring behaviour of cats, taught to them in the wee days of kittenhood. But kneading can also be a means of communication with other cats when an unneutered male or female is in heat. It can also be a sign your cat feels stressed and is seeking comfort. Like all cat behaviours, a sudden change outside of the norm calls for a chat with your vet.
No matter the reason for all the kneading, we can all agree on one thing—cat claws can be sharp! If you find that the cost of love is too painful, keeping up on nail trims or adding a layer of blanket between your lap and your cat should do the trick. Kneading is a natural, inherent behaviour and it’s important to not punish your favourite feline for it. Instead, try rewarding your cat for kneading on surfaces other than your lap.