Why Cats Knead?

By Sara Ochoa, DVM April 13, 2019

Sometimes cats exhibit some of the most peculiar behavior. The one quirky thing they all seem to do is knead. It leaves one to think, why in the world would they do this? Well, it turns out that there are several reasons, and we'll talk about some of them as we go along.

Why Do Cats Knead?

Cats knead to leave their scent behind to mark their territory. They will also knead to show affection towards other cats and their owners. Furthermore, the behavior can bring comfort to them and is also a way for them to display excitement.

What Is The Purpose Of Kneading?

As you may already know, cats have coexisted with humans for thousands of years. Before cats became somewhat domesticated, they were very wild and instinctual. Even though they were highly skilled hunters, they were not at the top of the food chain. Larger predators and even other cats were known to hunt them.

So, where does kneading come in? Similar to most wild animals, cats felt it was necessary to mark their territory. When cats knead, they actually have little scent glands in their paw pads that leave behind their scent as a signal for other cats to stay away. Even though feral cats live in social groups, some places are just off limits.

One of the most believed reasons that cats knead is that it brings comfort to them. Your cat was once a kitten that kneaded his or her mom's mammary glands to help stimulate milk production while they were suckling. Therefore, many cats will knead to bring back this pleasurable memory. Some cats that were taken from their mother very young will knead and suckle a blanket or toy to pretend that they are still with their mother. 

Another plausible reason for kneading is to help shed old or broken nails. Feline nails grow underneath the old nail leaving the old nail to act kind of like a sheath. To expose the newer, sharper nail, cats will knead or scratch on tree bark, rough vegetation, or if you are unlucky, your furniture. There are toys and cat stands that you can purchase for you cats to train them to knead on and not scratch up our furniture.  A cat’s claws are some of the most important tools they have, so keeping them sharp means a greater chance of catching and subduing prey. In the wild, if you have broken or dull claws, then it is not likely you will survive.

Sometimes there really is no reason. Cats tend to be very playful, and they may knead their little digits to show they're excited. You can usually observe this just as they are about to pounce on a toy or each other. Furthermore, cats may knead simply because it feels good. You may have noticed this after your cat has awoken from a nap. They like to yawn and stretch out, all the while kneading their little digits.

Why Do Cats Knead Each Other?

It is thought that cats knead each other to show affection. When cats feel happy or content, they knead as a way of showing they are relaxed. Most cats spend a third of their waking hours grooming, and sometimes that includes kneading and grooming a friend. If you have ever had a friend or loved one scratch your back, then you probably understand why cats may enjoy it too.

Why Do Cats Knead Their Human?

If you have a close relationship with your cat, then you may have received a kneading session in the past. In a way, when your cat kneads you, they are actually showing you how much they care about you. Remember, cats still retain most of their feral instincts. By kneading you, they are claiming you as part of their property by leaving their scent on you. So if you try to pet your neighbor's cat, don’t be alarmed if they shy away from you. Your neighbor's cat most likely smelled your cat's scent on you and is heeding the warning. 

Why Do Cats Knead Their Bed or Blanket?

Scientists have speculated that when cats knead their bed or blanket, it is an instinct left over from the olden days. Thousands of years ago, our feline companions didn’t live in a house and snuggle up on our pillows. Back then, cats had to be on the move so they could find prey and avoid being caught by larger predators. When it came time to sleep, they would knead the ground to tamp the grass down and make it softer to lie on. This is strictly theoretical, but it still makes for a logical point as to why they still knead their bed or blanket today. Furthermore, the need to claim the bed or blanket as their territory could also be a factor.


The truth is there could be a million reasons why cats knead things. Even though cats have been by our sides for thousands of years, some of their behavior still remains a mystery. How they can snuggle up with their human, show affection, and then turn around and kill a mouse without the slightest hint of remorse is simply fascinating. We may never figure out why cats truly do the things they do, but for now, it's nice to think that when your cat kneads you, he or she is genuinely showing you how much they love and appreciate you.

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