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Why Do Cats Like to Knead?

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Layne is an animal lover who grew up in a household full of rescued critters. She is a registered veterinary technician.

Why Do Cats Knead?

Why Do Cats Knead?

My Cat Purrs and Kneads Me

When a cat kneads or "makes biscuits," it's nothing short of adorable. They often find the softest blanket around (or your tummy) and will knead to their heart's content as if in a daze. They will purr, stare off at a wall or the object of their affection, maybe even pick the blanket up in their mouth (and drool!), and really get into "the zone."

This behavior communicates to most owners that their feline companion is content and feeling lovey; it often indicates, too, that a cat is setting up a bed or soft spot to relax, clean themselves, or simply nap. It's adorable! Still, this behavior is rather cryptic. It can also be out of character for your otherwise spunky, confident, loud, excitable cat, to suddenly make biscuits like they are ready to cuddle. Find out where this funny feline behavior comes from, why they do it, and if it means your cat is happy, relaxed, or if they are simply acting on instinct.

Why Do Cats Knead Blankets?

One hypothesis as to why cats knead is because it is reminiscent of their days as a kitten. If you've ever seen kittens nursing, you will see this same rhythmic behavior in your adult cat. A kitten will latch on to mom and knead with both paws as they nurse. This helps to stimulate the mother's production of milk. To put it simply, your cat is acting on instinct.

Milk contains hormones and growth factors that contain trace amounts of oxytocin, but as stated through research, these levels drop off quite rapidly immediately after the first few days of nursing. Instead, science suggests that the act of sucking in newborns releases oxytocin:

"In calves, the act of sucking at the udder is associated with a rise in oxytocin levels but not when drinking/lapping milk from a bucket. This effect is caused by activation of sensory nerves in the oral mucosa during sucking."

Therefore, if you find your cat kneading blankets, soft surfaces, you, or even stuffed animals or other pets in the house, they are doing so because the familiar motion of kneading and nursing actives the pleasure center of their nervous system. And, if your cat purrs as they do this, this doubly indicates that they are content.

Kneading is an indication that your cat is happy.

Kneading is an indication that your cat is happy.

Why Do Cats Knead Their Owners?

As mentioned above, kneading is reminiscent of a cat's early days of nursing as a kitten. Nursing mom is comforting and the act of "making biscuits" allows them to revisit these motions. If your cat tends to knead you, they are doing so out of affection and this means that they are very comfortable and loving towards you. It's a sign that they come to you for comfort and companionship.

Unfortunately, if you do not keep your cat's claws trimmed regularly, this can be very painful! Sometimes your cat will come find you when you are laying in bed and climb up on your stomach and dig in with their sharp nails. It's hard to get them to move because you don't want to discourage their affection, but you also don't want to be left with tons of tiny scratches all over your stomach.

The best thing you can do to combat this issue is to have a spare, soft, fuzzy blanket around that you can quickly throw over your stomach when your cat tries to hop on your lap or wants to jump up on your bed and climb onto your stomach. Fleece blankets tend to work well for this—avoid blankets that can shred and become stringy from the damage. Also, go for something washable. We will discuss more helpful tips below.

Some cats knead out of territoriality.

Some cats knead out of territoriality.

Cats Also Knead to Mark Territory

Cats are extremely territorial, and the mere act of kneading with their claws and paws on objects releases their scent as well. There are actual scent glands on the bottom of a cat's paw pads that can communicate to other cats who have been there, what a cat's current mood is, and what their reproductive status is (and more).

If your cat is intact and female, it's also possible that they are kneading objects or the air to indicate that they are in their reproductive prime and ready to mate. This will also be coupled by other indications that your cat is in heat.

Do note that thousands of adoptable cats are euthanized every year in the United States due to pet overpopulation. You can help reduce this issue by spaying and neutering your pets to prevent accidental litters. In addition, fixing your cat will reduce obnoxious or undesirable behaviors like marking, yowling, spraying, territoriality, and aggression.

How to Stop Your Cat From Kneading

While you don't necessarily want to discourage your cat entirely from kneading, consider ways that you can encourage them to knead at the right place at the right time. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Keep your cat's nails trimmed (monthly)
  • Set up a designated spot where your cat is allowed to or will feel comfortable kneading. Sometimes they just require a designated soft blanket placed in a strategic location in your home.
  • Provide them with a cat bed or blanket that is just theirs in their favorite spot.
  • Consider spraying their cozy space with Feliway; this product is made of a synthetic feline facial pheromone and marks a space as "safe, friendly, comfortable." It can be really beneficial for anxious cats.
  • If you don't want your cat to knead you, keep treats nearby and call them over to a spot where they can knead. Pet them as they get into the groove so that they feel encouraged to relax.
  • Never punish your cat. Instead, encourage them to act on the behavior in the right place at the right time by following the above tips.

How to Trim Your Cat's Nails

If your cat's nails are hurting you, this probably means that your cat is also tearing up the furniture in the house. If your cat will let you, take them to the vet's monthly for a quick nail trim or get some nail trimmers and do the trimming yourself if your cat will let you. Here's how to trim your cat's nails:

  1. Make sure your cat is tolerant of letting you handle their paws
  2. Take one paw and gently press the paw pad to extend the claws
  3. Working left to right or right to left; very carefully remove the tips of the nails with the clippers. You should be able to see where your cat's quick starts; do not cut it. (The quick is the innervated part of the nail bed that has a blood supply and keeps the nail bed alive.) You do not want to clip your cat's nails quickly as this will cause them pain, make them resistant to nail trims, and cause them to bleed.
  4. Repeat the "tipping" of the nails for all four paws. Reward your cat with a treat after each paw has been trimmed or after the nail trimming is done.

Note: If you are ever uncomfortable or your cat starts to resist, don't push it. Cats are finicky, and once you sour an experience for them, it's hard to regain their trust.

Closing Thoughts

All in all, kneading is a benign behavior in cats. It's really meant as something positive and it gives them a great sense of comfort as they act on instinct. It's important that you recognize this behavior as a positive. If you don't want them to claw up your tummy, trim their nails or provide them with a soft, fluffy blanket. This behavior is one of the least worrisome behaviors your cat can exhibit. Oftentimes, it simply means they are happy, secure, feeling lovey, and ready for a nice, long nap.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Laynie H


Sp Greaney from Ireland on February 01, 2021:

Every cat I have had, has done this at some point. Like you say as long as their claws are trimmed it doesn't hurt. They always target your tummy area too.