It’s a moment that virtually all cat owners either come to love or dread: when your feline pal jumps on your lap and begins the familiar ritual of flexing and pressing its paws into you, rhythmically kneading your body as though you were the world’s biggest ball of dough.
Often, cats will purr while doing it, and maybe even drool a little or stare off into the middle distance, zoning out in that way that only cats can. If you’re lucky, it’s a momentary event and then they snuggle down for a nap. But many cats, it seems, just need to keep kneading, eventually driving their humans up the wall — especially if the kneading gets really intense, or starts involving claws.
Although feline kneading is generally a harmless action, it’s only natural to wonder why cats knead us (or blankets, furniture or other objects). And if it gets to be a bit much, there are methods to curb or redirect the behavior.
Why Is My Cat Kneading Me?
The most common explanation for kneading behavior is that as kittens, cats would instinctively knead their mother’s stomach while nursing in order to get milk. Such actions are deeply ingrained, so much so that even in adulthood, cats will continue to knead objects, other cats, and owners.
Of course, at this point, the kneading wouldn’t be so much to yield physical nourishment as it would be to provide emotional sustenance. As many owners have seen for themselves, cats tend to derive enormous comfort and satisfaction from the act of kneading. Even senior cats may feel the need to knead in order to soothe themselves or get into their own personal kitty comfort zone.
Additional Theories Behind Why Cats Knead
Other theories suggest that cats knead because their wild ancestors did this to grass or other potential bedding material as a way of tamping it down and preparing a place to rest (similar to how dogs may turn in circles before laying down). This may explain why you find your cat kneading a blanket or a sofa or a bed before settling down for a nap.
It’s also been suggested that when your cat kneads you, it’s not so much because it thinks you’re its mother. Cat’s paws have what are known as interdigital glands — scent glands that activate when their paws are flexed, or their claws are extended. So, your cat may be kneading you specifically to mark you with their scent.
Is My Cat Making Biscuits or Sharpening Its Claws?
Feline kneading behavior may seem superficially similar to when your cat sharpens their claws, but the two activities are markedly different in impulse and purpose. When a cat needs to sharpen its claws, it does not tend to pick its owner as a whetstone, opting instead for a scratching post — or more lamentably, the nicest piece of furniture or woodwork in the house.
With sharpening, cats deploy their claws more fully and tend to make distinct stretching and pulling motions that are typically more robust than the gentle kneading motion we humans inevitably compare to “making biscuits.”
Although the instinctual action is innocent enough, not every owner enjoys feeling like bread dough, especially since many cats do at least slightly extend their claws while kneading. Usually this isn’t aggressive enough to break skin or cause scratches (especially if you remember to keep their claws trimmed), but it can be irritating, particularly if their paws are on your bare skin — or a wayward claw ends up catching the weave of a favorite sweater.
How to Stop Your Cat From Kneading
To be honest, if your kitty is inclined to knead, you’re unlikely to completely eliminate the behavior. Certainly, you should not shout, hit or otherwise give them negative feedback when they try to engage in unwanted kneading — you’ll only stress them out and probably create a cat that starts clawing or biting instead.
When you’re dealing with such a primal instinct as kneading appears to be, your best bet isn’t to focus on prevention but on a certain amount of tolerance and deflection. If your cat is dead set on kneading you, it may be best to indulge them for at least a short time. But after that, your main strategy will be to find some way to redirect the behavior.
To veer your cat away from yourself or any undesirable kneading targets, most animal behavior experts recommend that you designate a special “object of knead”: a thick blanket, cushion or plush toy that they can treat like biscuit dough.
Every time your cat comes over and starts its routine, gently place them on or near that designated object. Do this often enough and your smart kitty should get the hint, eventually realizing that the blanket (or whatever you choose) is the preferred target. Then they can continue to use it whenever the knead arises.