My cat kneads me like he's preparing to try out for the next season of the Great British Baking Show. He does this every morning when he's had enough cuddle time. And again, every night just before J.B. Fletcher reveals the killer on Murder She Wrote, my cat Mazel is up on my belly gently pressing into my skin rolls with his little toe beans.
But it's not just me who gets the patty cake treatment! Mazel will knead our pillows, blankets, and (when they haven't been paying attention) he has even found a way to knead our dogs.
Here is a video of Mazel during a recent morning kneading session. I've taken the background audio out, but highly recommend watching while playing Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road", or Billy Joel's "Piano Man" ("Kneader Man" parody song coming soon).
Why Does My Cat Knead?
I know it's a common behavior, but does the daily biscuit making routine mean my sweet kitty was taken away from his mom too early? And if so, is there anything I should be concerned about developmentally? Or, is my cat kneading me to show affection?
I asked Dr. Susan Krebsbach, a veterinarian with behavioral expertise, to explain why cats knead.
Dr. Susan explains, "There are several theories about why cats knead. Probably the most widely-held one is that it is a remnant from their kittenhood when they will make the same motion with their paws on their mother’s stomach while nursing. This stimulates milk production and flow from the mother’s teats. The theory is this behavior continues past weening and into adulthood because the motion of kneading has positive associations with the comfort of nursing.
There are other theories too. They include:
- Kneading was passed on from wild ancestors when this behavior was done to pat down vegetation to make a soft resting place or when giving birth
- Another means for cats to stretch their muscles
- A way of using the scent glands on their paws to release pheromones to mark territory
- A demonstration to male cats by female cats who are in heat that they are ready to mate
"Obsessive kneading, especially if you observe a marked change in the behavior, may indicate that there is a problem. If so, contact your veterinarian to discuss it."
Are There Different Kinds of Kneading?
Sometimes it seems like there are subtle changes in the way Mazel kneads. Most of the time he's using his front paws to do all the work, but sometimes he really leans into it and seems like he's sniffing around the area.
And then there are times when he goes all out while he's sniffing and making bagels out of my tummy or knee (he goes for my knee a lot for some reason, and it's not even a particularly fleshy part of me). His back legs kind of go up into a "V," as I've only seen happen while watching Olympic gymnastics.
Does this mean there are different types of kneading, or perhaps, different kneading intensities? When he kneads a blanket or a pillow, is it for a different purpose than when he is kneading me?
"While most cats make the same rhythmic motion with their paws while kneading, pushing forward with their front paws and alternating between left and right, they don’t all do it the same way. Some accompany this action with a loud purr, some with a soft purr, and others with silence. Some may use just their front paws while others use all four. Some may extend their claws while others do not. Some cats may suckle and even bite while kneading. Kneading may induce such a state of relaxation that the cat appears to be hypnotized. How a cat kneads is a reflection of their unique character," says Dr. Susan.
I can definitely vouch for Mazel going into a state of zen hypnosis as he jiggles my middle.
Dr. Susan continues, "The intensity of kneading can vary. For example, when they have been alone for a while, the cat may knead with more ferocity, especially their favorite person. The frequency may vary, as well. This could depend on what is occurring in the cat’s life at the time. For example, if there is remodeling going on in the home (which causes most cats stress), a cat may knead more in search of comfort — or less if they are spending more time hiding.
The surfaces that cats knead on can differ. Often it is a beloved family member, but it can be a soft surface, like a blanket or stuffed toy. This, I believe, is just a reflection of the cat's personal choice or just choosing the closest available item at the moment."
Should I Stop My Cat from Kneading?
I don't believe Mazel is an obsessive kneader; I guess I'd say it's more a part of his routine. But is there any reason for concern? We usually break into our "Kneader Man" song when he gets into position, but should we be discouraging him instead?
Dr. Susan advises, "Kneading is a natural behavior for cats — and a wonderful bonding experience for both felines and humans alike! However, when the cat’s claws are not trimmed, it can be painful for people. Kneading can cause snags on clothes, blankets, and furniture, leading to the cat’s claw getting stuck on whatever they are kneading. Also, some people simply don’t appreciate this loving act.
Do not discourage your cat from kneading. It is a natural instinct that needs an outlet. Instead, keep the cat’s nails trimmed so that when they extend their claws while kneading the object of their affection, people won’t be scratched, the furniture won’t be snagged, and cats won’t get their claws stuck. For people who don’t want to be kneaded, the moment the cat starts to do it, redirect the cat to a designated spot for kneading with a blanket or towel for this purpose."
Dr. Susan Krebsbach is the owner and founder of Creature Counseling and has been helping pets and their people prevent and resolve behavior issues for over 20 years.