What does it mean when cats knead?

Most of us have watched a dog as it walks slowly in tight circles before lying down. Cats exhibit a similar behavior when they knead with their front paws. This pushing in and out, left to right motion is usually done on pillows, blankets, a person’s lap—most any soft surface will do. But why do cats perform this odd (to us) ritual?

So far, there is no indisputable scientific explanation but we do have a variety of hunches and other related guesses.

What do cats need when they knead?

A common answer to this riddle is that kneading is a habit formed during kitten years when a little one kneaded its mother in efforts to increase accessible milk volume. Fast forward to cat adulthood and this behavior is often displayed when a cat is happy or simply in a content and peaceful mood reminiscent to those nascent kitten days. In fact, adult cats often knead prior to settling in for a long nap; a behavior hearkening back to periods prior to cats’ transition to domesticated house pets. Some people stand by the hypothesis that wild cats would pat down surrounding grass and foliage to “make” a softer place to sleep or give birth.

Another reason for kneading might originate in a cat’s paws, which contain scent glands. The kneading could be a way for a cat to claim a specific area with its individual scent.

A show of affection

It’s one thing to knead in efforts to make a soft bed but why do cats knead people? A content cat curled up on your lap will often perform the kneading behavior, especially if you pet him. This is his way of showing his affection toward you, which is sometimes accompanied by needle pricks when his claws dig in. Place a barrier between the claws and your skin, and keep those claws trimmed.

Stretch before using

Think about good it feels when you get up from a nap and stretch your muscles back to life. Sometimes it works well to hold on to a countertop or stair bannister and pull; that’s the same end result cats are going for when they knead after a nap.

Dating game

Some female cats take to kneading the air while laying on their sides; This is an instinctual mating behavior signaling male cats they are “available.” Further courtship, however, is required before a female acquiesces to formal mating.