Cats can be mysterious creatures- they can happily spend all day, enjoying their time alone when, suddenly, they decide to hop up on to your lap and begin kneading your poor legs. And while we can all agree that their independent natures are one of the many things we love about our cats, we certainly can’t complain when they decide to show a little affection. Even if it is like getting a stroke from a cactus!
Yet, the mystery remains- why do cats knead their owners? We decided to do a little digging into the theories available- and, while we can never ask our feline friends what’s going through their minds when they do this, we managed to come up with some pretty reasonable arguments for this “kneady” behavior.
What Is Kneading?
Kneading refers to the motion cats make from time to time, whereby they rock their paws back and forth in a rhythmic manner. Some cats may use their claws when doing this motion, while others may go as far as drooling during their kneading!
You’re more likely to notice this when your cat is on top of something soft, but they can do it just about anywhere- as long as they feel or are looking to feel comfortable.
Why Do Cats Knead Their Owners – The Theories
Since we can’t ask the purr-y perpetrators themselves, we’ve done a little research into the most common theories surrounding why cats knead. Read on to find out why your cat kneads you when they’re getting stroked and decide which one best fits your cat.
“It’s A Reflex”
The most common and well-known theory surrounding the mystery of why cats knead would be the link between the movements they make here and the ones they had while feeding from their mother, as kittens. Since kittens make this kneading motion to encourage the flow of milk from their mother’s teats, it’s not a huge leap of imagination to believe that this could be linked. This could also explain why some cats will drool while making this movement, or bite the area surrounding them.
The main take away here should be that, if your cat is kneading you, then they have formed a strong bond with you. There is a suggestion with this theory that your cat sees you as their new mother figure and comes to you for the same comfort they received while getting food from their mom.
Of course, there are some flaws in this theory, in that there would be no reason for cats to continue this behavior into their adult life. If anything, this could hinder their survival skills. There also seems to be no valid reason, if it is a reflex, as to why cats would pick and choose where they decide to make this movement.
It also doesn’t explain why male cats kneading behavior can sometimes be different to the females of the species, in that they can be slightly more aggressive and do a lot more biting than their feminine counterparts.
Negatives aside, this seems to be the most compelling argument as to why cats knead their owners and it certainly does hold a strong foundation. If you’re at a loss as to why your cat may be acting this way, the kittenhood theory is probably the one that’s most likely. Of course, it could be a combination of this and any of the other suggestions, below. Check them out and see if these sound more appropriate for your cat’s behavior.
“They’re Showing You Love”
Another popular proposal that is based upon the bond you have with your cat. This one is all about how cats are trying to pet you back! When you think about the situation you’re usually in, when your cat is kneading you, this also makes sense. After all, they’re likely to be sat on your lap, receiving a lot of love and happily purring away- it isn’t completely out of the question to suggest that they may be trying to show you some love too.
The main idea here is that your cat will be trying to do the same movements that you are showing them, so it doesn’t quite sit right with the fact that they like to get their claws out when doing this motion. Especially as, the happier your cat is, the more likely they are to claw away and eventually, perhaps, even give you a little bite.
If you want to avoid those claws having a good go, simply cover yourself with a blanket or similar when you notice your cat coming toward you. That way, you can both enjoy some quality time together without much fuss or pain.
“They’re Practicing Yoga”
OK, so maybe not yoga as you and I know it, but it’s very possible that your cat may be using their claws to really stretch out those hard-to-adjust muscles. Since we know that cats like to stay limber- just look at their first movement after they’ve woken up to confirm this- they tend to stretch out and really push/pull those muscles on a regular basis.
In regard to this theory, it’s very possible that your cat may be using you as a way to keep their muscles warm, even when they’re relaxing. The push and pull movement they make could be a way to soften up tight muscles, after a day of exploring too. Or it may simply just feel good to really get those muscles going- the same way it probably feels good for your cat to get their claws into something and have a good pull.
The flaws in this argument, however, would be the fact that don’t just use anywhere to keep up with these movement- cats will usually only begin to knead when they’re near their owners, or on a very soft surface. Since we know that can use anywhere to do their kneading, such as a scratching post or your furniture, this one seems unlikely to be related purely to staying limber.
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“They’re Checking For Danger”
This one goes back to the ancestral lives of cats- way back before these cute kitties made their way into our hearts and became domesticated animals. Essentially, it’s based around the hypothesis that wild cats needed to check the area they were in before lying down. If they didn’t, it’s very likely that some nasty creature or other might give them a lethal bite or nibble, when they were least expecting it.
By checking the ground using the kneading motion, they could be absolutely certain that any creepy crawlies would have disappeared from the area, thanks to the commotion around them. They could also be sure that nothing was beneath them, as their sensitive paws and claws would notice if there was movement beneath the ground.
It could also simply be a way of fluffing up the area, to make sure that wherever they decided to sleep was comfortable enough for them. In this sense, you can see how the links have been made to this theory, since we all know that kneading generally leads to them laying down and having a nice nap on your lap.
This theory has a solid basis, especially as we also see this behavior in dogs and other wild animals, despite there being no correlation in other areas. Continuing with dogs as an example, you can usually see these guys digging or circling an area before settling down, which could also come from their instincts.
Again, the issue here is that your cat will likely only do this movement with someone they feel comfortable with or in an area that they feel safe in. It does seem odd that they would begin to make sure the ground feels safe on top of their favorite humans- but, as with all of these theories, it’s hard to deny to credibility behind the concept.
“It’s Territorial Behavior”
Cats are known for being very territorial creatures– they’ll likely have a few arguments with neighboring cats over their space, and male cats have a tendency to spray their preferred areas with their urine (especially if they haven’t been neutered). The thinking process behind this idea is that your cat may simply be marking you, or that lovely spot, as theirs.
The theory is that a cat who likes you and their home, will knead the area to spread their scent or mark their area. In this case, their area is you- or your couch, bed and so on. It’s not an unusual idea, since cats are known to activate the scent glands located in their paws, in order to signify to other cats that they are in the area.
The problems here are based around the fact that cats don’t tend to act this way when outside of their home, or in an area they don’t know. When a dog marks their spot, it can be anywhere, as many dog owners will attest to when their dog is cocking their leg every five minutes, during a walk. Cats, on the other hand, only seem to knead when they’re around something that makes them feel comfortable.
“They’re Going Into Heat”
Female cats are known for showing some fairly odd behavior when they’re about to go into heat– also known as estrus- including showing you their backside, urinating inside the house (but outside the litter tray) and wailing in a desperate attempt to catch a mate. One theory related to female cats kneading is that they are trying to display their readiness to procreate.
Of course, if this were the case, it’s likely that they would only display this kneading behavior from time-to-time- when they’re going into heat. Yet, as most cat owners will know, their kneading tends to come about whenever they feel like it. As such, this doesn’t necessarily hold much credibility when compared to some of the other reasons on here but, as always, there’s no reason why this can’t contribute to their actions- especially if you have noticed an increase in the pawing and pulling motions, recently.
Which Of The Above Matches Your Cat?
While it’s likely that one of the above reasons is going to be more likely than others, there’s no denying that each cat is different and will therefore have their own reasons for deciding to knead you, or your furniture.
In all honesty, the reasons why your cats knead are likely to be a combination of any of the above. For example, you might have a cat that’s going into heat and therefore would like to double-check the ground is safe, in order to remain healthy enough to get down to business with their chosen tom. Or, your cat may simply be showing you that they love you and are very happy with their situation, while also keeping themselves warm and limber- ready to jump up at a moment’s notice. Jumping into action is what cats are best known for, after all.
Whatever the reasons are, you may have already noticed that there are a few running themes within all of these theories. The first is that all cats do this, and it seems to indicate that they’re very happy. The second would be that, the happier your cat is, the harder they will claw and paw away at you (sorry knees!). Next, there’s the fact that all of these behaviors are based around instinct- you can’t train a cat to knead, after all. Finally, cats will generally only do this with someone they trust, so you should definitely take it as a compliment!
- Kristen Hall-Geisler, Why Do Cats Need to Knead?, HowStuffWorks
- Is My Cat’s Kneading Normal?, American Animal Hospital Association
- Why Do Cats Knead Their Owners With Their Claws?, International Cat Care