Why do Cats Knead?
Explore the kneading behavior of cats to understand what instincts it satisfies.
For tens of thousands of years, cats have been a source of mystery and fascination for humans, mainly due to their distinctive appearance, their unexplainable behavior and their unique skills. Cat owners can spend endless hours observing their cat’s behavior, wondering what it all means. Anyone who has a relationship with a cat has watched their “kneading” behavior, which looks like the cat is working its paws in a motion that is similar to that of cooks kneading bread in preparation for rising. Why cats exhibit this behavior has caused much speculation among animal behaviorists.
Does Your Cat Knead?
Some cats will engage in rhythmic, repetitive motions of their paws on cloth, bedding or even on skin. They may do it for long periods of time, and it seems to serve some purpose. Some cat owners call this behavior “making biscuits,” because the actions are so similar to the movements of a baker in the process of working dough to make it rise. Other people call it “making bread.” Yet some cats never engage in this activity. If you have a cat that habitually kneads at materials, you may wonder what’s going on that makes the animal behave this way. Experts believe it is related to a number of natural instincts.
Leftover Behavior From Kittenhood
Tiny kittens will knead at their mother's belly to try to stimulate milk production for feeding. Some experts believe that when adult cats knead soft materials or their owners’ clothing they are reverting to this long-remembered activity from their kitten days. The behavior may be a deeply ingrained behavior that helps them survive when they are very small.
Kneading To Express Hunger
In a related idea, some experts believe that cats will approach and knead their owners when they are hungry, to induce them to provide food. In fact, this can be an effective method to get their owners to prepare their dinner.
Kneading to Mark Territory
Felines are territorial creatures, like canines, and they are instinctively compelled to mark their territory to let other animals know this place is theirs. They have scent glands on their paws to help with this marking. Your cat may be marking their bedding, your own bed, or your clothing to let other creatures know you are part of his territory. So, if your cat kneads you routinely, consider it a compliment.
Kneading to Exercise Important Muscles
Cats have a unique musculoskeletal system that needs exercise to stay in good condition. Some experts suggest that they may use kneading behavior to exercise the small muscles in their forelegs and paws to keep them in good condition for hunting activities. Because most cats spend their lives indoors, they rarely have opportunities to use these muscles to satisfy their hunting instinct. Kneading may fill the need to practice movements they would normally use for catching, holding and eating their prey.
Kneading As Mating Behavior
Kneading is also observed to be part of feline mating behavior. A female cat will lie down on her side and knead her paws, signaling to the male that she is interested in mating. Although, what this coquettish behavior might mean is open to discussion. Perhaps, the kneading is meant to be a non-threatening invitation. Or, the behavior indicates a relaxed and receptive state. Whatever the underlying meaning, the behavior can act as a social communication to facilitate reproduction.
Kneading To Prepare Bedding For Sleep
Pet owners often notice their dogs circling around in their beds or readjusting the bedding with their paws in preparation for sleep. This same behavior may apply to cats, as well. When they were still wild felines, cats may have performed these same actions to flatten the grass when they intended to sleep for the night. In the feline brain, kneading the paws may be behavior that helps them to wind down and prepare for sleep. In fact, many cat owners report their pets tend to perform this behavior late at night before bedtime.
Kneading To Secure A Connection With Their Owners
Although cats are generally portrayed as being cool and unemotional, the fact is, they often form very close bonds with their owners. The kneading of the paws while you are watching TV or reading in bed may be a sign of wanting to connect with their owners at the end of the day before sleeping. Perhaps, the felines want reassurance about their bond with humans and hope to maintain it through the night and into the next day.
Should You Discourage Kneading in Your Cat?
Some pet owners find this kneading behavior annoying and even, painful when the cat’s claws are not well trimmed. You may not approve of having your expensive bedding or furnishing shredded by kneading activities. However, trying to discourage the behavior can have a negative effect on your feline friend. It’s a better idea to choose some approved target, such as part of an old quilt you no longer use or some other type of thick, soft material that will allow your cat to knead to his heart’s desire. You can use this cloth to redirect your cat’s kneading instinct to a less expensive item or keep the animal from scratching your skin.
Your cat may knead you as an expression of hunger, affection or simply a way to express his stress. In the end, your cat has a need to express an inner feeling and has chosen to share it with his human companion. Just enjoy this special moment of bonding with your cat, knowing it is a deep, instinctual behavior that makes the animal feel more secure.