Feline 101: Why Do Cats Knead?

Posted by Katherine Ripley
Man at home cuddling beautiful cat

Those claws hurt, okay?

Many cat owners are familiar with this struggle: Fluffy wants to sit in your lap, but as soon as you start petting her, she digs her claws into your leg.

This behavior is called kneading: pushing a soft surface with alternating paws. Most cats do it, and you've probably already guessed that it's not an aggressive behavior (some cats don't even use their claws at all when they knead).

But why do they do it? There are a few possible explanations:

1. It's a behavior left over from nursing.

When kittens nurse from their mothers, they instinctually knead to help stimulate the mother's milk production. Even after the kittens are weaned, they continue to knead in other situations because they associate kneading with the comforting feelings of nursing.

cat nursing kittens

2. It's a behavior left over from the wild.

Cats' ancestors had to make their beds out of tall grass or leaves. By kneading the ground, they could create a comfortable place to lie down, and they could also check for snakes or other animals that might be hiding under the brush.

cat in grass

3. They're marking their territory.

Kneading is one way a cat can mark his territory. The soft pads on the bottoms of his paws have scent glands, and these glands are activated when the cat kneads.

cat paws

4. They're stretching their legs.

It could be as simple as a stretch. Many cats will fully extend their front legs when they knead, so they might just be working out the kinks from being curled up for so long.

cat stretching

5. Your cat is "petting" you back.

We pet our cats to give them affection, so they knead to give us affection. Unfortunately, their love hurts.

Man Cuddling Cat

Can you stop your cat from kneading?

Not likely, since cats are not easy to train to begin with, and it's even more difficult to train an instinctual behavior out of them. What you can do is encourage your cat to knead at certain things and not others.

Put a thick blanket on your lap as a barrier when you're petting her, or place her next to you instead of on top of you. Give her blankets and pillows that you don't really care about (preferably ones that have your scent on them) so she doesn't ruin your nice decor.

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Feline 101: Why Do Cats Knead?