If you've ever had a cat snuggle up in your lap for a nap, you know that she'll push her paws up and down until she's found the perfect spot, but why do cats knead?
Cats display seemingly odd behavior at times, as pet parents soon discover. Cat kneading is one of the most common and perhaps one of the most misunderstood of these distinct behavioral traits—no one can say exactly why cats knead their human family members, but there are some compelling theories out there.
First of all, what is cat kneading?
A cat kneads in much the same way a baker works bread dough, using a pushing motion with her front paws, alternating between left and right. In fact, the act of cat kneading commonly is referred to as "kneading dough" or "making bread/biscuits." Not all cats knead, and some cats do so infrequently. She may even bite at the sheets or blanket while kneading. Each cat is unique in her habits.
Are you my mommy?
One of the most widely held beliefs is that domesticated cats retain their kitten instincts. Kittens knead their mothers to stimulate milk production for nursing, and as PetMD explains, "even though kneading a soft surface doesn't yield milk, adult cats forever associate the motion of kneading with the rewarding comfort of nursing." Kneading a human, therefore, might be a cat's way of showing her love and affection for you. Despite being a full-grown adult cat, your fur baby remains just that—your baby.
Can there be too much kneading?
In addition to kneading as a way to show affection, a cat may knead as a way to self-soothe, too, because it can provide a great comfort. But is it too often? If she's alone for long period of time, for example, she'll amp up the kneading when you are home, says Petcha, so "try spending more one-on-one quality time with her. Play with your cat, brush her, or just hold her and talk to her in a loving tone of voice every day." This will help her to de-stress.
If your cat begins kneading obsessively, it may be a sign that something with her is amiss, in which case you should contact your veterinarian.
Do cats only knead people?
Cats will sometimes knead on soft surfaces like blankets or their preferred napping location to get into a comfortable position. This is another wild instinct that domesticated cats retain, giving them the important skill of creating a cozy, safe space in which to get some rest or give birth while hidden away from the dangers of predators. Additionally, this serves as a way for cats to mark their territory, so cat kneading may also be your kitty's way of telling you that it's actually her bed, not yours.
Can I train my cat not to knead?
It's a wonderful bonding moment when your cat kneads your lap while you're sitting on the couch, but even when she uses a gentle motion, it can be painful if her claws aren't trimmed. Or, perhaps her claws snag your clothes, the blankets or couch, and you want to keep your possessions from wear and tear while keeping your kitty from getting stuck.
What you don't want to do, however, is prevent your cat from kneading entirely. She's not misbehaving: it's a natural instinct for which cats need an outlet. But there are ways you can protect your stuff and let your cat happily knead away.
Keeping her claws trimmed, an important part of regular cat grooming, will decrease snags and scratches. If you don't want her to knead people, you can train her to knead dedicated blankets or towels by moving her gently to these items at the moment she begins to knead, thereby redirecting her to the designated spot. It may take a while, but she'll learn.
Why do cats knead? Cats love their pet parents, and if you're the chosen one, you're on the receiving end of a loving gesture.
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom and long-time pet parent whose two Russian Blue cats rule the house. Her work also appears in What to Expect Word of Mom, xoJane, Fit Pregnancy and Care.com, where she writes about pets and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien