Feline Mystery: Why Do Cats Knead?

If you own a cat, you’ve likely seen them kneading with their paws. This behavior is not only adorable, it’s also a great indication that your cat is content!

Mar 17, 2024By Sara Rumrill
feline mystery why do cats knead

Kneading is a very common behavior that housecats display when they are feeling particularly comfortable. Watch your cat as she relaxes on the couch or in her bed, and you may see her kneading these soft surfaces with her paws. But do you know why they do this? Keep reading to find out more about why cats knead.

What We Know about Kneading

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Image credit: morrisanimalinn.com

Experts say that kneading is primarily a bonding and relaxation behavior. There are multiple reasons cats perform this action when they are feeling particularly content. Cats often purr while kneading, and the slow, gentle motion is easily recognized as a sign of comfort. Some cats will even do this to fluff up their beds and blankets during naptime!

Cats also knead on their humans. When they do this, it’s a sign that your cat loves and trusts you, and wants to bond. When your cat kneads on you, they’re also releasing their scent through special scent glands in their paws. This is thought to be another sign that when a cat kneads on a person, they are marking them as their own. While veterinarians and researchers don’t know 100% of the origins of this behavior and every aspect of it, they are confident in kneading being primarily performed in these ways.

Theories about Kneading

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Image credit: purrfectlove.net

Some experts believe that kneading is also tied to a sort of nostalgia in cats - kittens knead their mother’s belly during feeding time, which helps to stimulate milk production. It’s thought that when adult cats perform this behavior, they’re remembering their kittenhood. How sweet is that? Kneading during feeding as a kitten is also thought to release endorphins in both the kittens’ and the mother’s brains. Performing this action as an adult is likely to release these same endorphins.

Although more research needs to be done, some people also believe that kneading could be used by some cats to relax after a stressful event; cats will choose to knead to calm themselves down. Some cats have been observed kneading after coming home from a car ride or after moving to a new home. Pay attention to your cat at home - does she knead right after getting spooked by the vacuum cleaner, or after a particularly rough play session with a sibling? If so, perhaps these theories could be true!

Kneading and Anxiety

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Image credit: whycatwhy.com

While most house cats perform this behavior as a sign of comfort and affection, some cats do it excessively. As previously discussed, kneading could be a self-soothing behavior in some cases. If you notice your feline friend kneading much more often than usual, kneading without purring, or any other signs of stress, it could be time to visit your veterinarian. They may be experiencing a lot of anxiety and need treatment to feel better. Just like humans, our pets can have problems managing stress and anxiety, and we need to pay attention to these changes and take action when we notice a problem!

Do Other Types of Cats Knead?

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Image credit: pethelpful.com

Wild cats and big cats also knead, just like house cats! Some wild cats knead grass into a cozy bed, similar to wild dogs when they turn around in circles on grass before lying down. It’s also thought that big cats knead for the same reasons as house cats – they are feeling particularly comfortable and relaxed! Baby big cats also knead during nursing, like house cats. Isn’t it funny how similar big cats are to house cats?

Ancient Felines and Kneading

cat looking up medium
Image credit: medium.com

Like big cats today, ancient wild felines were known to knead while nesting. There is also evidence that big cats kneaded their surroundings as a sort of territorial marking - remember those scent glands in your cat’s paws? Ancient wild cats used these glands to mark their territory and make their boundaries known to other cats in the area.

Did you know that it isn’t just house cats that perform this adorable behavior? Like most other behaviors that are passed down from generation to generation, kneading has stuck around because of its benefits for cats. And what a sweet way for our cats to let us know how comfortable and safe they feel with us! Next time your cat climbs in your lap and starts kneading, be sure to cherish the moment - and relish in the fact that owning a cat also has benefits for your health as well! What did we do to deserve such loyal and precious companions?

Sara Rumrill
By Sara Rumrill

Sara lives in the US with six pets - a pit bull, a shi-tzu, and four cats, named Frankie, Morty, Ralphie, Stevie, Fritz, and Ayla. She has been in the veterinary field for over a decade and considers animal care to be her life's work.