Cat Kneading: Why Does Your Happy Kitty Do It?

June 13, 2017

Cat kneading is a favorite activity of many felines. Find out why your kitty loves the push-pull of this happy behavior.

Have a happy kitty? One way to tell is when she she pushes her paws in and out, one at a time, against certain surfaces, usually soft ones. Your cat also halfway closes her eyes and purrs or drools during the act. What is happening? And why? Your cat is doing what is called "cat kneading." Not all cats display the same mannerisms during the act, but kneading is a favorite activity of many felines.

Kneading is gentle, relaxed cat action. Your cat might knead with claws in and out or with his claws retracted back so that he's just kneading you with the pads of his paws. "Kneading is a throwback to when a cat was a kitten. Kneading on the queen's belly caused milk to be released into the mammary glands," says Dr. Bernadine Cruz, D.V.M., a veterinarian at Laguna Hills Animal Hospital in Laguna Woods, California.

Where and When?
If kneading is a method for kittens to stimulate milk production, you might wonder why your cat is still doing it. Your pet's an adult now, and she's not kneading on her mother. She's kneading on your lap. "We believe the behavior carries over into adulthood and happens when cats are particularly content and happy," says Amy Shojai, a certified animal behavior consultant and author of 30 non-fiction pet books.

Note that your cat might be prone to knead on you while you pet her. It's a way of showing how much your cat loves and appreciates you. It could also be an instinctual act found in all cat DNA. And the purring and drooling that sometimes accompanies the kneading? Dr. Cruz calls this "feline bliss." Cats also enjoy kneading on soft blankets (or on your best sweater if you leave it lying around!).

Prepare Yourself for Accidents
If you have a claws-out kneader who seeks your lap, it can be painful for you. But you don't want to deter your cat from being happy. "If your cat has long claws and is making you a pincushion, learn how to trim your cat's nails," says Dr. Cruz. Your veterinarian or groomer can show you how to do this simple procedure safely.

Protect Furniture and Belongings
"Cats don't usually knead on furniture," says Dr. Cruz. But cats do target furniture when they want to scratch, a more active behavior of cats done with claws out (also known as "sharpening their claws"). You can't stop a cat from scratching or clawing, but you can redirect your cat to more suitable scratching objects, such as a cat tree, says Shojai. You might need to experiment to determine the surface your pet prefers.

"Some cats like carpet, some sisal fibers and some like cardboard," says Dr. Cruz. Most cats prefer something vertical. To train your cat to use the scratching post or tree, Dr. Cruz suggests sprinkling some catnip on it. You can deter your cat from scratching your furniture by applying double-stick tape to the surfaces. Another method is to squirt your cat with a water bottle just before or just as she starts to scratch an off-limits area.

Beware of Declawing
Some people turn to declawing as a quick fix to a scratching or painful claws-out cat kneading situation. The Humane Society of the United States is against declawing (which is banned in many countries), saying that the procedure is not like a simple manicure, as it involves amputating toe bones.

"Declawing should be your last resort," says Dr. Cruz. "The declaw procedure can be a viable alternative to relinquishing your cat to a shelter, rehoming or making it an outside pet." If you do declaw, only do so on the front paws. Also, know that you'll need to keep a declawed cat indoors for the rest of her life because, without claws, a cat can't defend herself. Also check with a veterinarian before making any major pet decisions.

Kneading is a charming and endearing trait unique to cats. Enjoy your little pal as she shows the joy of life.

And read Keeping Your Cat Healthy.

Laura Agadoni is a pet writer and pet owner whose articles appear in various publications such as The Daily Puppy, Pets on, The Nest, Tom's of Maine, The Penny Hoarder and Trulia.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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