Let’s get one thing straight. We love it when our cats give us weensy little massages — no matter how painful it may be. It’s so beyond adorable to watch them make tiny biscuits that we’re willing to overlook the fact that our skin is being pierced with what feels like a thousand tiny claws. But as mesmerizing as kneading is, one huge question is always lingering in the backs of our minds as our kitties go to town: What the hell are they really doing and why are they doing it?
“Kneading is the rhythmic pushing and pulling movement they do with their paws, as distinct from scratching on items such as furniture or carpets,” Dr. Eloise Bright, a resident veterinarian at Love That Pet, explains. “Cats knead for a number of reasons, and there is not really one known reason for why they actually do it.”
We found seven reasons for your cat’s inclination to knead you… or your hair… or the bed… or the dog.
“Cats instinctively knead as kittens when nursing from mum to help along her milk production,” Bright tells SheKnows. Shawn Simons — founder of Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats, a nonprofit, Los Angeles-based feral cat rescue — also adds, “This motion is closely tied to a time when they were little, comforted, and warm milk would flow endlessly. Now you see why they need to revisit that time!”
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“The reason cats knead is for comfort and affection. It is a relaxation technique; it shows they trust you and they like you,” says Dr. Elyse Kent, D.V.M., who is a preferred provider at Vet24seven — a new app that allows pet owners to consult with vets from their phone. Simons looks at kneading this way: “This Zen moment is like a hug.”
“Cats knead when they are relaxing, perhaps as a throwback to setting up a little nest of grass to get comfortable on,” Bright suggests. PetMD also advises that this habit could originate from our cats’ wild ancestors, as they would knead tall grass to set up a bed or check for unwanted visitors underneath.
Bright explains, “Cats also have scent glands on their feet, so perhaps kneading is also a way of ‘owning’ you or a specific item, such as a piece of furniture.”
Dr. Bernadine Cruz, D.V.M. — an associate veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital and pet expert, appearing on shows like Cats (A&E) and Petcetera (Discovery Channel) — notes the following: “Kneading can be a very soothing behavior for a cat. They will typically extend and flex their paws when they are content. You may even find that they drool a bit simultaneously — feline bliss.”
6. Going into heat
PetMD also adds that female cats tend to knead right before going into heat. It may be considered as a sign to a male cat that she is ready for some TLC.
“[Kneading] is similar to purring in that it’s showing contentment, except only one in 100 cats will knead,” Kent explains. However, she notes, “It has nothing to do with being taken away from their mother too early; that is just a myth. They are simply expressing their affection.”
Originally posted November 2015. Updated October 2017.