Making biscuits, kneading dough, marching—whatever you call it, kneading is a weird cat quirk. They look like they’re in a trance as they lift one paw, then the other, again and again on a soft surface.
Not all cats knead, and they don’t all knead in the same way. Most cats only use their front paws, but some use all four; some kitties bring their claws out, and others don’t. A cat kneading at your lap might hurt, but your kitty doesn’t have any bad intentions.
Even when they’re too young for their eyes to open, kittens need to knead, says Katy Nelson, DVM, Virginia-based veterinarian and Freshpet ambassador. Nursing kitties push around when suckling to get their mother’s glands to release more milk, she says. No one is totally sure why the habit lasts through adulthood, but there are a few theories.
For one thing, because felines grow up associating kneading with the comfort of Mama Cat and her milk, the habit might be soothing. They don’t think about food when they do it anymore, but it’s just plain relaxing, as evidenced by the mad purrs you might hear while they do it. (Find out the surprising reason cats purr.) “Like a kid sucking a thumb, it’s a calming thing,” says Dr. Nelson. “A lot of cats have their eyes closed and look like they’re completely zenned out.” These are the 11 cat cancer signs you need to look out for.
Another theory is that cats knead to mark their territory. Cats have scent glands in two places: their faces and paws. When felines rub their faces against the furniture or go to town on a scratching post, they’re leaving their scent—and same goes for kneading. Paws are the only places where cats sweat, which means rubbing them against something leaves that smell, says Dr. Nelson.
Others think kneading might span back to housecats’ ancestors. Wild cats didn’t have the soft blanket that your domestic kitty might love, so they had to make the ground as comfy as possible, says Dr. Nelson. Pushing at the grass might have helped soften it up to “get their bed just right,” she says.
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Innocent as the habit is, you might still get annoyed when your kneading cat digs its claws into your lap or furniture. Kneading makes cats happy, says Dr. Nelson, so instead of stopping your pet from doing its thing, just keep its claws short. “Keep the nails trimmed so it’s not painful, and not messing up your blanket or your couch,” she says.