Kneading is one of those adorable kitty behaviors that we cat people can’t get enough of. It’s physically impossible not to feel happy and relaxed when you spot your favorite feline “making biscuits” while getting cozy on the couch—or even better, in your lap. Kneading is the official word, and making biscuits is a personal favorite, but this rhythmic paw motion is also called paddling, marching, or giving a massage. Whatever you decide to call it, all cats do it. But the real question is, why do they do it?
Of course we can’t know for sure without a cat actually telling us, but feline behaviorists and scientists have a few credible theories.
One thing behaviorists agree on is that kneading starts soon after kittens are born. Even before they can open their eyes, tiny kittens give in to their instinct to start making biscuits. It’s not tasty pastries they’re after, however. It’s believed that kittens move their paws forward and back in this repetitive pushing motion to stimulate milk production while nursing. They often do it against mom’s tummy as they’re suckling.
Separated Too Soon?
If kneading is normal behavior for nursing kittens, then why does your adult cat start kneading every time they get comfortable? Some people theorize that adult cats knead if they are taken away from their mothers too early. They think it’s a kind of emotional comfort to replicate those long-ago feelings of security.
Evidence shows, however, that this isn’t true. Even cats that grow up living in the same home as their mother and are never separated continue to knead their way through adulthood.
Another theory associated to feline kneading has to do with the scent glands located in a cat’s paws. As territorial creatures, it’s logical to think cats use kneading as a way to mark their territory. By moving their paws, they pass their scent onto whatever it is they’re kneading. This leaves a “message” behind for other animals. It could be a cat’s way of saying, “This spot is mine, go find your own.”
Cats don’t have hands to pick up blankets and pillows. So when they want these comfy objects rearranged, they have to work with what they’ve got. Behaviorists say cats might use kneading as a means to make themselves comfortable. It could be your bedspread, a particularly fluffy pillow, or the sweater you dropped on the floor. If your cat wants to lay on it, they first have to make it how they want it.
A Lifelong Habit of Contentment
The most commonly accepted reason as to why cats knead is that it’s a leftover habit from kittenhood. Remember how kittens knead when with their mothers? That experience is filled with strong emotions of safety, contentment, and relaxation. It doesn’t necessarily matter when the kitten stopped nursing—those feelings can stick with them for the rest of their lives. So when they start kneading on their favorite blanket, they might be having subconscious flashbacks to that peaceful, uncomplicated time in their lives. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?
Consider it a Compliment
Cats like to knead on blankets, pillows, and even laundry. But one of their favorite times to make biscuits is when they’re curled up with their favorite human. If your cat likes to hop into your lap and immediately starts kneading, you should consider that their way of saying, “I love you.” It might be hard to feel the love when their claws are repeatedly digging into your skin, but most behaviorists agree that kneading means your cat is perfectly content to spend quiet time with you.
The language barrier between humans and felines will always prevent us from knowing for sure why cats knead. We can’t read their minds, but behaviorists study feline behavior as a way to answer these all-important questions. It might be that cats knead because of only one of these theories, or it could be a combination. Either way, kneading is completely normal cat behavior.