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Why Do Cats Knead?

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Cats have many quirks, and we love them all. Kneading is especially mysterious and delightful at the same time. Not all cats knead, but those who do each have their own style. Some kitties alternately push their front paws forward, extending their nails as they alternate. Other cats keep their nails in. And other cats knead with all four paws! But why do cats knead? What are they telling us? And where did kneading originate?

It’s a littermate thing. Nobody is 100% certain why cats knead. There are a few theories about where this habit really came from. We do know that for many cats, it’s a habit. They knead because it’s something they pick-up while still with their littermates. They would knead their mother’s stomach to get milk, and the habit remained as an expression of comfort seeking, or giving.

Why do cats knead? Vet OrganicsIt’s an affection and comfort thing. It seems later in life, it becomes a way to show affection. When they knead our laps, the prevailing theory is that Mr. Socks isn’t just finding comfort, he being comforting and showing his love. While showing and giving comfort are the most popular explanations, we also know our kitty-companions probably use kneading to get comfortable. They knead blankets, pillows, and other soft places to create the ultimate cozy snuggle zone. Of course, for those of us with kitties who extend their nails while kneading, it can help to keep a thick, soft blanket nearby to protect ourselves. It’s better to provide a safe place for kneading than to reject Ms. Kitty Fantastico’s efforts to show her love in her own way.

It’s a genetic, instinctual thing. Many cat experts believe kneading is a trait that’s been passed down from their wild ancestors. They would knead soft surfaces to sleep or create a place to give birth. They would use kneading to fashion tall grass and leaves into a bed or to check for snakes or other threats.

It’s a placemaking, territorial thing. It can also be a way to mark territory. Cats have glands in their paws that emit their scent. That way they can stake their claim wherever they go, with a little emphasis on the places they choose to knead.

It’s a health and wellness thing. Cats are also born yoga experts. They stretch and often knead to help keep themselves limber and to keep their nails and muscles strong and healthy.

It’s a ritual signaling thing. Female cats have one additional reason they might knead. It’s an activity they may act out when they are in heat, to show they are willing and able to mate.

Cats are amusing, unique, mysterious, and fun. Kneading is just one of their many fascinating quirks. Even though there are many theories about why Mr. Socks and Ms. Kitty Fantastico may knead, there's no doubt that it’s entertaining to watch and that the instinct is a way they communicate comfort, affection, needs, and wellness. Wherever, whenever, or however, our cats knead, it’s natural, instinctual, and a common cat-companion behavior.   

Do you have pics or video of your cat kneading? Do you have a quick comment, story, or something to add to the discussion on cats and kneading? Share your story in the comments below, or head to Instagram or Facebook and send us your pics! Be sure to use #vetorganics


Michelle Lievense

Michelle is a writer and ghostwriter, specializing in wellness, sustainability, and global social change. She is particularly fond of serving ethical organizations who contribute to a better life for people and animals through humane and environmentally responsible missions. At Vet Organics, Michelle uses her time as a vet tech, her academic studies in animal science and behavior, and nearly a decade working on a ranch teaching animal husbandry to write on a variety of cat and canine health topics. When she isn't writing, Michelle can be found hiking in the mountains of Colorado with her dogs or snuggled up with a good book and her cats.

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