If you’ve ever watched a cat purposefully kneading a surface and wondered why, you’re not alone.
Kneading is what we call it when a cat rhythmically alternates pushing their paws against a soft surface, such as the sofa, a rug or your lap. It doesn’t mean your cat fancies themselves as a baker or a massage therapist, it may be one of their more peculiar quirks, but kneading serves a number of important purposes for cats.
When do cats first start to knead?
Kneading begins virtually from day one, when kittens knead their mothers’ teats to help stimulate milk production.
While behaviour experts aren’t entirely certain what drives cats to knead beyond kittenhood, it’s thought they instinctively associate massaging a soft surface with the comfort of a mother’s nurturing. Some adult cats even lick or suckle the surface they’re kneading.
The widely held belief is that kneading is both an expression of contentment and a self-soothing mechanism. Just as humans might sigh happily and stretch when we’re feeling at ease and preparing to chill out, cats are thought to knead to help themselves relax and unwind.
Kneading throughout history
Kneading is likely also a throwback to modern felines’ ancestors (and, interestingly, one of the few personality traits that cats share with dogs). Wild cats and dogs would knead, pat or paw at the ground to create a soft, comfortable place to sleep or give birth, and that instinct clearly still exists in today’s domestic pets.
Another theory is that kneading is a means of scenting or “claiming” an area as a cat’s territory, as cats have scent-secreting glands in their paws.
Kneading with claws
Not all cats knead, and of those that do, not all extend their claws in the process. But if your cat does use their claws in kneading, and they choose to use you as their kneading surface, it’s wise to place a barrier such as a thick towel between their paws and your skin.
If your cat does scratch or hurt you while kneading, it’s important not to punish them. Kneading is a natural behaviour and any injuries inflicted are unintentional. If your feline friend is a particularly vigorous kneader, try redirecting them to a more appropriate surface.