Why do cats knead

Anyone who has spent time with or owned a cat will be familiar with the action of kneading. A cat may find a particularly comfortable spot and begin to slowly and cyclically lift then exert pressure on its front paws, much in the manner of a baker kneading dough for a loaf of bread. When kneading, the cat will often appear greatly contented, have her eyes almost closed as if heading off in to a nap, and may also dribble.

The aspects common to frequently chosen kneading sites seem to be comfort and safety. Cats will knead on blankets, in their own beds, on sofa cushions, or, as cat owner’s will know, on laps. Usually, the site is soft and comfortable, but most importantly, safe. As many cat owner’s will testify, kneading may not always be as comfortable for the lap owner as the cat since many cats, once in full swing, can inject a little claw in to their kneading!

During a cat’s early years when it is suckling from its mother, a cat learns through instinct that gently kneading the mother’s milk ducts eases the flow of milk. Through this action, most kittens soon learn that pleasurable and desirable experiences come through kneading. As the kitten grows, it takes this behaviour in to other aspects of its life, frequently seeking to relive the contentment it once felt as a result of kneading as a kitten.

A similar idea that appears to have been relegated to the status of ‘old wives tale’ by modern thinkers is that kneading is a sign that kittens have been separated from their mother’s too early since they are subconsciously living out their unfulfilled desire to knead for their mother’s milk. However, it is clear that cats separated from their mothers at all stages of kittenhood go on to knead.

Although the need for comfort and security seems to be the principal reason for kneading, there is another action associated with kneading that is perhaps a little more in line with natural and instinctive animal behaviour. Cats are territorial, often marking their presence with a unique scent. As a cat kneads its paws, a unique feline scent is slowly excreted via tiny glands located in the pads of the cat’s feet. To the human sense of smell, the faint odour of the very small quantity of scent is barely noticeable, however to the heightened sense of smell of cats it is a clear marker of presence.

So, when a cat wishes to mark out its territory it may knead or even sometimes mark with its claws an area, leaving its unique signature scent in place for other cats to register.

Whatever the real reason behind kneading, it remains a very cute habit and one that, for many, epitomises the behaviour of a content, well-loved and happy cat.