Julia Ogden

Written by Julia Ogden

Updated: May 23, 2024

Why does my cat knead me?

Updated: May 23, 2024

Although we know a lot about cats, we still can’t explain all of their quirks. Kneading is a good example, as there are several theories as to why cats engage in the behavior. However, all seem to agree it’s a sign of a happy pet.

What is kneading?

Unless you’re a baker, human beings don’t tend to find much cause for kneading in our lives, but it’s a different story for cats. Any observant cat parent won’t have failed to notice their pets pressing their paws up and down on different soft surfaces, be it a blanket, a rug or even our laps.

It’s an undeniably cute thing to watch — especially when they purr at the same time — but what’s the reason for this slightly unusual behavior?

Why do cats knead?

They did it as a kitten 

Well, there are many competing theories about why our cats knead us, but, as with lots of their traits, it’s thought to hark back to when they were a kitten

When they’re nursing, kittens often knead their mother’s stomach to help stimulate milk production — it’s not difficult to understand why this particular movement could be associated with comfort and security even in later life.

It’s an evolutionary trait 

Alternatively, some posit kneading is a hand-me-down from feline ancestors who lived in the wild. Thanks to the scent glands found in a cat’s paw, pressing up and down somewhere acts as a way to lay claim to a territory. 

This is especially common behavior for female cats in heat, who will leave their distinctive smell about the place to let males know they’re ready to mate. If your cat is also being unusually vocal and keener than usual to head outside, this might be why they’re kneading so much.

They’re just trying to get cozy

What’s more, kneading was also a pretty effective way for wild cats to make a cosy nest out of long grass or piles of leaves when they lived in the great outdoors, while also checking for potential threats lying underneath. Indeed, wait long enough at a zoo and you might just catch a big cat doing the very same thing. It’s probably safe to assume your cat isn’t scouting for possible dangers when they knead your couch, but it still helps them set up a comfy sleeping space where they feel safe.

You might also notice them kneading when they wake up from one of their many catnaps and this is thought to be a way for them to stretch their limbs after a snooze, just as us humans like to do.

What does kneading mean?

Whatever the motivation behind it, one thing universally agreed upon is kneading’s a sign of contentment in your cat, something that should be clear from their happy body language and purring as they do so. This is why if your cat chooses to knead your legs, you should take it as an affectionate gesture. 
If their claws are a little too sharp and this is painful, it’s important to never punish them for engaging in instinctual behavior — they won’t understand what they’ve done wrong and might start acting fearful of you. Instead, if it’s too much, try distracting them with a toy, putting a cushion over your legs or even keeping their claws clipped to more tolerable lengths.

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