Why Do Cats Knead?

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

If you've ever spent time with a cat, you may have experienced a little kitty massage with sharp claws in your midsection. This is known as 'kneading.' In this lesson, we'll look at some of the reasons scientists have put forth as to why cats of all species exhibit this behavior.

What Is Kneading?

After a long day, it's always nice to come home to a pet. They're excited to see you, even if it's just for a refill on food. As you sit down on the couch after work, your cat comes up to you, rubbing her head on you and climbing into your lab. As you pet your kitty, she starts to rhythmically push her paws on your lap, 'massaging' you.

This behavior is called kneading. It's called that because it reminds us of kneading bread, and, like kneading bread, it relaxes those who do it (and us, provided we're wearing enough clothing). But why do cats engage in this behavior? Scientists don't know for sure, but they have some hypotheses that have to do with cat biology, as well as communication with other cats and humans.

Biological Reasons

Cats are mammals, so immediately after being born they nurse from their mothers. In doing this, kittens knead the mother's breast tissue to release milk. Thus, some scientists think this behavior carries over from their life as a kitten, where kneading produced milk, a very delicious reward. Adult cats remember this and associate kneading with something good, so they continue to do it.

Kittens knead to nurse from their mother
cat with kittens

If you've ever had a cat, you've probably noticed they love something soft to sleep on. I know a sweatshirt, or fleece blanket, is a favorite with our cat. Just like humans, cats may try to 'turn down' their bed, or fluff it up, before getting some shuteye.

This explanation actually ties into the life of larger, wild cats. Wild cats don't have a sweatshirt to curl up on, so scientists think that the behavior we see in domesticated cats might be left over from their evolution from wild cats, who had to actually knead to make a comfortable bed in the grass.

Wild cats also knead to create a soft bed
wild cats kneading

Cats, domestic or wild, aren't the only ones to knead. Although less common, dogs knead as well. Dogs, like cats, knead to get milk from their mother's breast when they are puppies. This is a comforting action, and dogs will continue this behavior into adulthood when they feel relaxed or need comfort. Some people have observed their dogs doing this before bed, as sort of ritual to calm down from the day.

Communication

Beyond the physiological reasons, kneading may serve as a form of communication. If you and your cat are having some quality time, she may come up and knead you instead of her bedding. What is your cat trying to communicate, and why does she do this?

Compared to dogs, cats are less domesticated. Dogs, for years, have been bred for certain behaviors, like protection or hunting down prey. However, cats are mainly companions, and domestic cats are more likely to breed with feral cats, keeping them a relatively wild species. Many of their behaviors are instinctual, as opposed to learned during training.

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