Why do cats knead?

Cats have fast become one of the most popular pets in the world, with an estimated 29% of Australian households owning a cat. Felines come second in the pet popularity stakes only to dogs. And with internet memes, films and merchandise for entertaining all your cat-loving needs, it is unlikely the pets’ popularity will stagger at any point in the near future.

One of the main draws for cat owners is the amount of personality the animals have. Each breed of cat is different, and likewise each individual cat itself is different. However the animals themselves have many distinct shared traits, such as kneading – sometimes referred to as ‘making biscuits’.

Cat owners the world over know the feeling of cuddling up to their favourite feline companion after a long day’s work, only to be restlessly pawed at.

Kneading is a common behaviour in nursing kittens as the kneading motion helps the kitten receive milk. However adult cats also knead during periods of deep contentment. Hence the motion, colloquially referred to as ‘making biscuits’, is often accompanied by purring and sometimes even your kitty bedding down on the kneaded surface.

While kneading is widely regarded as instinctual behaviour (also known as ‘neotenic’ behaviour, meaning a juvenile trait that is retained throughout adulthood) there are many hypotheses surrounding the kneading motion, suggesting why it might have developed to be such instinctual behaviour. Some of these ideas include:

Cats knead to mark their territory:

This is quite possible as cats have scent glands in their paws, the kneading motion can activate the glands meaning what kitty kneads, kitty is claiming ownership over.

Cats knead objects they wish to show affection:

Another possibility as neotenic behaviours generally align with the more sociable and palatable behaviours humans select for when breeding domesticated animals. Plus, it would be a little strange if a cat facing sudden danger or irritation decided to stop, knead something and then bed down for a quick nap or cuddle!

Female cats knead more as they near their ‘estrus’ cycle – i.e. going into heat:

Head bowed, hindquarters raised – this is the position female cats assume more often when they go into heat and are looking to reproduce. During this period female cats may knead certain surfaces more often than usual. If you’re not looking to be the proud grandparent of a litter of kittens it’s best to make sure your kitty has been speyed. Speying can sometimes aid in lessening the kneading behaviour of some cats, but this is debatable.

Kneading cats were separated from their mothers too early:

This is unlikely as most adult cats knead regardless of how early/late they were separated from their mothers.

THINGS TO KNOW:

Instinctual cat behaviour like this comes from pre-domesticated times. Humans, as they have bred cats into the creatures they are today, select for the most palatable and sociable traits. The cuddly, pawing behaviour of kneading is one of these – one of the things that separates the wild cats from the house cats!

Because this is instinctual and social behaviour, punishing a cat for actions such as kneading is frowned upon. Though they are domesticated, cats are still semi-autonomous creatures that should be housetrained in line with their already existing attributes. If your cat is kneading you and this hurts too much you can try putting a blanket/soft surface on your lap, or redirecting its kneading to a pillow or other surface.

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