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Why Do Cats Knead?

When cats knead, it’s often referred to as making biscuits or cookie dough. Are you now visualizing cats in chef’s hats and aprons preparing homemade treats? Of course not!

Kittens knead their mothers to release their milk as they suckle. Adult cats knead (or make biscuits) because this rhythmic, massaging action is comforting. They may not remember their mothers, but cats never forget the feelings of reassurance associated with kneading her.

Making biscuits is an endearing term used to describe kneading. As well as an action they used as kittens to access milk, adult cats appear to knead when they are experiencing a variety of emotions including:

  • happiness
  • excitement
  • contentedness
  • comfort

Cats also can’t resist kneading as a response to a tactile stimulus such as a soft fabric. Their kneading action can also be a form of stretching.

Cats often knead as a part of an instinctive urge to nest, to scent-mark objects, and even because of breeding behavior (in females).

Even so, the strongest evidence points to kneading arising from a latent instinct linked to kittenhood. As a kitten, your cat will have kneaded at its mother’s belly while suckling, to encourage the flow of milk.

Those of us who have had our tummies ‘made into biscuits’ by our beloved cats can sympathize with mother cats because claws are usually employed and this can be a painful experience. I wonder if kittens who stay with their mothers all their lives still knead them given the chance?

As you can imagine, a kitten will have very fond memories of the safety and comfort they experienced whilst kneading and suckling from their mother with their siblings. These memories are carried with them into adulthood.

Therefore, most kneading behavior seen in cats is associated with positive feelings. Of course, there are a few other reasons as well. 

A Maine Coon kneading a chair.

Cats Experience Positive Emotions When They Knead

If your cat is very excited, it will knead the nearest soft surface. If there is no soft surface nearby, you may see a variation of kneading that looks like a march – they just can’t stop themselves.

This excitement might be associated with you returning home from work, picking up their food bowl at mealtimes, reaching for the treat box, and many other actions.

Happy cats love to knead. This is why they often start making biscuits when they are curled up on your lap with their eyes closed, enjoying being stroked, tickled, and petted. Take this as a compliment; you make them relaxed and happy!

Sometimes, a sleepy cat will knead the air (make air biscuits!) when you start stroking them. Or they will roll over onto their backs, displaying their fluffy bellies as a sign of absolute trust, and then start to make air biscuits.

When your cat kneads you, it can hurt because their claws extend from their toes, although some cats knead without extending their claws. If you have a claws-in biscuit-making kitty, count your blessings!

Even though kneading can hurt, you should never punish your cat for this behavior. Your cat sees nothing wrong with what they are doing and will be scared if you get cross with them.

After all, they are just displaying their happiness and affection. Put something thick and soft between yourself and your cat’s paws to lessen the pain.

When cats are happy, excited, or content, they will also display other signs of these positive emotions along with kneading. They will purr, rub themselves on you or nearby objects, slow-blink, and hold their tails up with the tip curled over in an upside-down U-shape.

The close association with the security and pleasure of suckling at their mothers’ teats means that adult cats use this action to comfort themselves. If they are distressed or overwhelmed, they may start kneading on you or a soft surface.

Cats Knead Because It Feels Nice

You might notice that if your cat jumps onto a soft blanket, it immediately starts kneading it. This is because they like how it feels under their paws.

They will not knead a hard surface, and they won’t knead all soft surfaces, only the ones that remind them of their mother’s belly. It’s not a conscious memory so much as an innate associative response.

Another way kneading feels nice to a cat is as part of a good stretch. You may see them reach their front legs forward while sticking their backends in the air, and then their paws will start a rhythmic kneading action with splayed toes.

Cats Knead To Mark Territory

Cats communicate vocally with humans, but they use body language and scent with other cats and animals. Cats have scent glands that are located in their cheeks, chins, and at the base of their tails.

But did you know that they also have scent glands in their paws? When your cat is kneading you, they are saying I love you, but also confirming that you are theirs.

They will also use kneading to scent mark their beds, your bed, furniture, etc.; anything that they want everyone to know is their personal property. 

Cats Knead When They Are Nesting 

Sometimes, cats knead their paws when they are on a blanket or a bed to make it more comfortable. They may even turn in a circle on the spot before settling down.

Kneading as a part of nesting behavior is believed to result from a different latent instinct, one much further back than your cat’s kittenhood.

May years ago, before cats were domesticated, their wild ancestors were thought to knead over patches of long grass to flatten them and make a suitable resting place or even a place to give birth.

This may also be why they stand and knead on your lap before settling down. You and your soft dressing gown, robe, or blanket are a great resting spot; you just need a good pat down first.

When a cat continues to knead you from a seated position, this is likely to be them showing their affection for you.

Cats Knead As Part Of Their Breeding Behavior

A female cat will sometimes lie on her side and make air biscuits to signal to a male that she might consider him a good suitor and he should start wooing her! Purring and stretching often accompany this behavior.

Should You Stop Your Cat Kneading?

Kneading behaviors and the reasons described above are not abnormal. In fact, making biscuits is typical behavior in most cats.

However, their claws are really sharp. It can hurt to have them digging into you over and over again, especially the soft skin of your thighs and stomach: prime targets when they are on your lap.

As mentioned previously, you should not punish your cat for this. That said, don’t feel too bad if you respond to a sudden claw in the leg with a cry. Your cat may jump away and look worried, but that can’t be helped.

If you have a particularly vigorous kneader, you can take them off your lap and put them on a soft blanket next to you. Alternatively, you can try to work the blanket in between you and your cat’s claws. Keep a blanket handy wherever you sit down.

Alternatively, you can use a toy to distract your cat from kneading your belly. But if you enjoy these moments with your cat, the blanket is the best idea.

Why Do Cats Knead? Conclusion

When cats make biscuits, they are usually signaling happiness, excitement, and contentedness. When they knead on you, they are showing you that they love you, even if their claws are sharp – and this kneading should not be punished.

Cats can also knead when they are seeking to reassure themselves. Cats find this rhythmic, massaging action pleasant and comforting because it is associated with the positive feeling of nursing at their mothers’ teats.

Cats sometimes knead as a part of a stretch or because they like the feeling of soft materials. Kneading can also be a part of nesting behavior. Scent glands in the paws mean that through kneading, cats can also mark their territory.

Intact female cats may knead the air to signal to nearby males that they are ready to mate.

You don’t need to stop your cat from kneading, it’s not a problematic behavior, or indicative of illness. But if you can’t cope with the claws, there are things you can do to discourage them from kneading you directly.

I would never discourage a cat from kneading because it is a very rewarding bonding experience. Treasure the moment – even if it hurts!

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