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Why Does My Cat Knead?

cat kneading couch

If you have a cat, then you’re likely very familiar with kneading—the rhythmic pushing of paws in and out of a soft object like a blanket, pillow, or even your stomach! The action is similar to the way a baker kneads dough, which is why it’s often affectionately referred to as “making biscuits.”

Some cats purr while kneading, while others stay silent. Some use all four paws, while others use just their front two paws. Regardless of these little nuances, kneading cats are almost always super relaxed, extremely content, and almost in a trance-like state.

Kneading starts very early in life. Kittens instinctively massage and knead at their mother’s belly while nursing as a way to help stimulate milk flow.

But why does this behavior continue well past nursing age?

The most likely answer is that kneading is comforting to cats. Even as adults, they associate the act with feeling warm, cared for, and nourished, just as they did when they were kittens.

Beyond that, there are several other theories as to why adult cats might knead:

  • Stretching. Kneading is one of the ways cats stay limber. You’ll sometimes see them stretching and kneading at the same time. These two actions complement one another, helping cats get a full-body stretch session, working out any tightness and kinks they may have.
  • Marking Territory. Cats are very territorial creatures. Their paws contain sweat glands that release pheromones. Pushing their paws in and out of an object can activate these glands and effectively mark their territory. Even if your cat is kneading on YOU, he’s likely telling other curious cats to back off because you belong to him!
  • Nesting. Cats in the wild will paw at grass, leaves, twigs, etc. to create nests to sleep or relax in. Not only does this kneading action soften the nest and make it more comfortable, it helps cats check for predators that may be hiding out underneath.
  • Mating. Females sometimes knead when they go into heat. Along with vocalizing (purring, yowling), girls may knead the air while lying on their side to entice boys to approach for potential mating.
  • Discomfort or Stress. Occasionally, kneading is associated with discomfort, a medical condition or stress in the environment. Pay attention to other cues to determine if a visit to your vet is in order.
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Making “Biscuit Making” Less Painful

What does it mean when your cat kneads on you? In that moment, you should feel loved and appreciated, because that’s likely what your cat is trying to tell you.

Unfortunately, the kneading can get quite painful if your cat still has his claws. And the more content he is, the harder he may dig into your body.

Try the following things to help reduce the risk of scratches or other injuries:

  • Keep your cat’s claws trimmed and filed to prevent sharp hooks. If you have a hard time doing this on your own, take your cat to a groomer. You might also consider nail guards, which are soft caps you glue over top of your cat’s natural nails. This is a great alternative to surgical declawing, which I don’t recommend doing since it can lead to health and behavioral problems down the line.
  • Place a thick blanket between your cat and your body that he can knead instead.
  • Distract him by throwing his favorite toy, or by giving him a tasty treat like freeze-dried salmon, chicken, beef, or turkey.
  • Slowly and gently move him away from you, onto a pillow or blanket, if his kneading is driving you crazy. He’ll probably start kneading the objects instead of you.

It’s important to never punish your cat for kneading by yelling, smacking, or spraying water at him. Remember, it’s an instinctual behavior that felines have little control over. If kneading becomes problematic, stick with distraction or redirection to keep the loving bond with your cat strong.

How Much Is Too Much Cat Kneading?

Like people, each and every cat is unique in how much, how long, or under what circumstances they knead. Some cats rarely or never do it, while others do it all the time. All of this can be normal for your particular cat.

However, if your cat starts doing it obsessively, or if your non-kneading cat starts kneading out of the blue, there may be something wrong. Book an appointment with your veterinarian just to make sure there’s no hidden issue that needs to be addressed.

Otherwise, celebrate your cat’s kneading as his way of giving you the ultimate compliment: I love you!

*This blog was developed with Veterinarian Dana Wilhite, DVM to help educate pet owners.

References

  • Cohen, Philip R, and Douglas S Ramsay. “Felis Punctatis: Cat Claw-induced Punctures.” Cureus vol. 9,12 e1927. 8 Dec. 2017, doi:10.7759/cureus.1927
  • PetMD. Why Do Cats Knead? Last accessed Dec. 10, 2021 at https://www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_why_do_cats_knead
  • Purina. Why Do Cats Knead? Last accessed Dec. 10, 2021 at https://www.purina.co.uk/articles/cats/behaviour/understanding-cats/why-do-cats-knead

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