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Why Do Our Pet Cats Knead?

Updated on May 18, 2019
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My two passions are writing and cats. What a wonderful thing to bring them both together. Hope this article has been helpful.

One of the more difficult peculiarities that cat owners are unanimously familiar with but have struggled to understand is when their four-legged furry companions are “making biscuits”; or to put it into layman’s terms, ‘kneading.’

Kneading is when a cat alternates its front paws in a rhythmic fashion, claws retracting in the process. Usually they do this into a soft and squishy surface with a hypnotic glazed look on their face. Chances are you have seen either your own cats or someone else’s cat display a penchant for this colloquially termed “making biscuits” to a cozy looking blanket, bed, sofa or even someone's lap before curling up into a ball and falling asleep.

As amusing – or nightmarish, as this needle-point feline massage may appear to us, animal experts are still in dispute as to exactly why cats do this.

Of course, scientists do have a few potential theories; in adulthood, cats will supposedly knead as an exhibition to show its content because it associates the motion of kneading with the comfort of nursing. This rationale subscribes to the notion that kneading is neotenic behavior - juvenile traits that stick with cats into adulthood. When a kitten is hungry, they will naturally knead at their mother’s stomach looking for milk, and the occupied kitten will instinctually knead at their mother’s stomach in order to assistant and stimulate milk flow. Consequently, because kittens use this ritualistic motion in their early years to satisfy a survival need, it has been postulated that they continue to associate this habit with all good things and bring it into their adult cat life as well.

Another more plausible theory is that your cats kneading habit is a method for marking their territory – yes, even if that territory happens to be you. This is achieved with sweat through the glands in their paws. Afterall, cats are instinctually territorial creatures, therefore, theoretically speaking they will knead on their humans to mark them as their own.

A few other possible theories to explain this curious feline behavior include: Kneading to prepare a place to rest. Our cat’s wild ancestors participated in kneading tall grass in order to establish a secret and expedient spot to rest and sleep. It is probable that this custom has passed down to our domestic pets. Hence, if your kitty appears to be exceptionally comfortable on your lap, they may decide to knead it a little in order to make it even more comfy before taking that long-awaited cat nap.

Another possibly theory suggests: Cats knead as a method for returning your love. Yup, as hard as it may appear to believe some experts have suggested that our cat friends may potentially engage in kneading as a means to show us, they care. As suggestive as this theory is, it is not exactly taking a huge leap of faith to believe. For instance, have you ever noticed how your cat almost punctually kneads your lap straight after you have given them a prolonged petting session? They are “petting” you back…in other words, it is a simple display of affection, regardless of how strange it appears to us.

Clearly it is apparent that the obvious reason cats knead is because it is instinct for them to do so. But, having said that, we cat owners clearly understand the “master and slave relationship” that goes on between owner and pet. Of course, it is conceivable that cats knead because it is nothing more than an opportunity for them to project a sign of contentment. However, if you have a very needy cat at home it is far more likely they’re kneading to solicit attention [a very good chance it’s for food] particularly if they are situated on your lap, purring away happily while looking you dead in the eyes; they are using all of their persuasive tools at their disposal to get what they want. Unfortunately for them our adult cats do not quite understand that their long claws penetrate through our clothing and straight into our skin. If you have ever been a victim of this, you will surely know what I mean. While they’re not methodically trying to hurt us, they can certainly get carried away and scratch us up good.

In conclusion, while kneading can occasionally be bothersome or painful, for a cat kneading one’s owner is a loving act, a way of letting us know that it feels comfortable and safe with you. That being said, don't be concerned if your cat isn’t enthusiastic on the habit—or, conversely, be troubled if he or she kneads too much.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Lee Nolan

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