Why do cats knead?

posted: 05/15/12
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The mysterious, sometimes delightful, quirks of cats include kneading, that funny pushing-forward motion of a cat's paws that mimics the kneading of dough. It's always comical to watch -- some cats even knead with both hind- and forepaws, performing a weird little dance ritual. Whether you call it making biscuits, paddling, giving a massage or marching, cats' kneading always makes cat owners smile and wonder, what makes Kitty DO that?

What is Kneading?

Cats begin kneading as tiny kittens, even before their eyes open. Placing their paws around their mom-cat's nipples, they quickly learn that the pressure stimulates the flow of milk. Kneading other objects never brings forth a squirt of milk, but the memory of that tasty reward stays with cats, along with the remembered presence of maternal warmth and security. When cats knead, they also purr, signaling that the repetitive motion and the sensation of their paws on something soft brings them contentment. Sometimes the movement of the paw is just a slight curl, while other cats energetically lift their paws up and down as if parading in place.

Lifelong Habit

Long after they've left their mothers' sides, cats continue to knead. There are theories that cats do it because they were taken from their mothers too soon, and are trying to duplicate that happy, protected time in their lives. However, even cats that stay in the same homes as their moms knead. Others theorize that the habit is a carry-over from their ancient feline ancestors in the wild, whose kneading was actually a practical way of tramping down grass or foliage to make a bed, and staking a claim on the area. But ask a vet who specializes in cats, and he'll tell you that no one is 100 percent certain why cats knead; we just know that they do it, from babyhood through the geriatric stage.

The Need to Knead

Watch a cat knead, tapping at a soft blanket, your favorite souvenir sweatshirt, or her own bedding. She's pushing the fabric into a more comfortable shape, the same way people adjust pillows or blankets at bedtime, but perhaps she's also channeling her inner kitten. Unspayed female cats often knead just before going into heat, as a sign of their eagerness to mate. Kneading can also signal a form of territorial marking. Because the pads of your cat's paws contain scent glands, her kneading emits her own distinctive scent, discernable by other cats or pets but not by the human nose. In a subtle manner, she's signaling that this is her own spot, and that other cats can just go knead somewhere else.

If Your Cat Kneads you

It's a form of feline flattery when Kitty kneads you; she's saying she loves you. But it's hard to feel flattered when your cat's bared claws are digging into your lap. Some cats sheath their claws while kneading, but if yours doesn't, keep her nails trimmed so she can safely continue to let you know that you're her favorite place to contentedly rest. Or fold a thick towel and place it on your lap so Kitty can perch there and knead away, sparing your favorite jeans. If the cat's kneading is too bothersome for you, encourage her to sit elsewhere to knead. Never punish a cat for kneading, a natural, instinctive activity that brings her only enjoyment.

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