A young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kittenA young Asian girl nuzzles noses with a tabby kitten
Barks & Mewsings

The Trupanion blog

Why Do Cats Knead?

By: Brianna Gunter

A gray cat kneading paws on a bed.

Cats are mysterious creatures, but that hasn’t stopped humans from trying to figure out why they do the things that they do. There’s perhaps no better example of this than kneading or “making biscuits,” which cat owners observe all the time without any concrete explanation.

What is cat kneading?

If you have a pet cat, you’ve likely seen them knead more times than you can count! This is when a cat rhythmically moves their paws in and out, flexing and un-flexing them on alternating sides. Many cats purr while doing so, and some sway side-to-side in tandem with their paw movements. While kneading is typically limited to the front paws, some kitties have been observed using all four.

Because of the similarity to the motions humans make while preparing dough (hence the term “kneading”), this cat behavior is also referred to as everything from “making biscuits” and “working the dough” to “making bread.” While descriptive, none of this explains why cats engage in this behavior, of course.

Why do cats knead?

The question of why cats knead their paws is something pet owners have been asking for centuries. Is it some kind of tic? Were they little bakers in a previous life? Are they just weird? Animal scientists have yet to fully decipher this most peculiar of feline behaviors, but there are a few dominant theories.

A natural instinct from kittenhood

One of the most popular theories about why cats knead is that it’s simply an instinctive behavior left over from their early months of life. Kittens knead the underside of their mothers, which helps stimulate the mammary glands to produce milk for nursing.

Marking territory

Some believe that kneading is actually one of the many ways felines mark spaces, furniture, and people as “theirs.” According to Dr. Julia Albright, Associate Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, cats have scent glands tucked between their toes that are stimulated by kneading movements.

Relaxation

Some humans (especially children) rock gently back and forth or engage in other repetitive behavior to comfort themselves. This lends to the belief that cats do the same with kneading. Kneading may help flex the foot and leg muscles, which could in turn help your cat’s whole body relax. By contrast, it may also be just an instinctive behavior that your kitty does because she’s content.

“Kneading is usually a calming behavior that cats do when they are relaxed,” says Trupanion veterinarian Dr. Sarah Nold, noting that it usually starts after a cat gets into a comfortable position.

Making resting places more comfortable

Cats often knead blankets and furniture either right before they lay down or during, which explains why another theory is likely. Just as humans fluff up their pillows and smooth out blankets, kneading could just be kitty’s way of making surfaces ideal for sleeping.

Kneading has wild origins

Another widely held belief is that kneading is a remnant of domestic cats’ wild ancestry. After all, lions and other big cats have been spotted kneading in the wild.

The furry little one in your home may not have grass or a nest to push her paws against, but that doesn’t mean the wild instinct isn’t within.

A combination of instinct and practicality

Ultimately, the reason your kitty likes to knead might come down to a multitude of factors that are both psychological and biological in nature.

“In most cases, kneading is considered normal cat behavior,” Nolds says. “Scratching and kneading are necessary for claw and pad maintenance. Also, kneading is a form of marking and one of the ways that a cat may communicate.”

Why do cats knead their owners?

An orange tabby cat stretches paws out on a blanket.

In addition to flexing their paws on furniture, blankets, and carpets, many cats seem to enjoy kneading their owners. Some kitties will even sit in their owner’s lap or snuggle alongside them while kneading the air.

Just as scientists aren’t quite sure why felines knead in general, the jury’s also out when it comes to cats kneading their owners. One theory is that your furry friend sees you as a parental figure. Another potential explanation is that your cat isn’t necessarily kneading you, but the soft fabric you’re wearing. Kitty could also simply think you’re a cushy, comfy spot that’s worth flexing her paws against.

How to make cat kneading more comfortable

Not all cats knead their owners with their claws out, but boy can it hurt when they do! Nevertheless, it can confuse your cat and cause anxiety to get mad at them for this behavior. To reduce the risk of claws sinking into your thighs, try moving a blanket or towel in between you and your cat. You can also try trimming your feline’s claws to a length that won’t break the skin when they’re treating you like a batch of biscuit dough.

Just don’t care for the sensation of cat kneading at all? Try distracting your kitty with a treat or toy whenever she starts. You can also gently move her to a different location, but be sure to pet her for a little while to keep up the comforting atmosphere.

Can kneading indicate health problems?

While kneading is a perfectly behavior for most cats, there are rare situations where it could be a sign of underlying issues.

“Kneading can vary in intensity. In some cases, it can progress to aggression,” Nold explains. “If your cat is not causing harm, it may be best to just ignore them. If the behavior seems excessive contact your veterinarian to determine if a behavior consult or medical tests are recommended.”

Learn more about your cat and Five Critical Cat Behavior Changes to watch for.

A dog and cat snuggle

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A WORD FROM TRUPANION

We’re the official blog of Trupanion—chosen by veterinarians as the #1 pet insurance in America. Here you’ll find useful dog and cat care tips, interesting veterinary insights, and fun pet topics galore.

While you’re browsing our pet blog, please note that the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Trupanion. Our articles are reviewed by veterinarians for accuracy, but they are not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Always consult with your own pet’s veterinarian for advice.

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