Kneading is a behavior commonly exhibited by domestic cats wherein they push in and out their front paws, alternating between the left and right sides against some usually soft surface or even another animal or person. It’s colloquially known by the adorable term “making biscuits” because it resembles a baker rolling out dough.
It’s unclear what are the specific behavioral mechanisms could explain this feline action but there are a number of hypotheses among behaviorists that we could use. This is instinctive, so there is no need to punish your cat for something as natural as catnaps.
So Why Does a Kitten Knead You
All cats knead, although kneading habits vary from kitty to kitty. Some do a kitty march while others just let their paws do the beat. Still, others like to poke on their dough with claw slightly out of their paws.
And the strange thing is, this behavior is not limited to our house cat – even lions and tigers pat their paws, too!
So why do felines make biscuits? Consider these 6 reasons:
1. Leftover Kitten Behavior
One of the most widely accepted explanations for kneading is that it is a residual behavior retained into adulthood from when the cat was a kitten. Kittens will do an almost identical kneading motion to their mothers’ mammary glands in order to stimulate milk production during nursing.
These baby cats grow older and eventually get weaned from their moms. But old habits die hard.
Cats tend to instinctively knead whatever their source of comfort is. It’s kind of like silently saying “you remind me of my mom who was warm and fuzzy and gives me yummy food.”
This is evident during those instances when you see your cat suckling on surfaces they knead.
A previously touted theory was that cats knead if they were separated from their mothers too early. But this has been debunked as the behavior is seen in almost every cat regardless of the circumstances.
As kneading provided what they quite literally needed to initially survive and grow, an association is formed connecting the action to a feeling of safety and security. In this way, kneading may be an almost unconscious action that harkens back to when the cat was a kitten.
Obviously, it must be instinctual to some degree, as kittens that are only days old will exhibit the behavior; even when apart from their moms. Some cats have even been observed to suckle on blankets as they knead them, which lends more evidence to the nursing belief.
2. A Display of Love
Kneading is only done when cats are comfortable and happy, so there is likely also an aspect of kneading as an expression of contentment and even love. When you have your cat on your lap and you cuddle him/her, kneading is almost a form of reciprocation – a way for the cat to hug you back.
Kneading indicates that they’re very comfortable. So, when done to a person, it means they are happy where they are; getting affection and attention.
Kneading is also a way for cats to express their snugness. Sometimes your kitty just feels so relaxed that it gets its head up in the clouds while it kneads.
This is just like how we would roll and curl up under bed covers on a cold rainy weekend afternoon. Sometimes, cats even keep their eyes closed while some also purr.
One cat parent once commented that her feline just would not budge and kept on making biscuits no matter how she prodded and poked fun at her cat. The only time her tabby moved was when it heard a nearby sound of a “real biscuit” being eaten by a kitty sibling.
3. Stress Relief
Another use for kneading is to function as a self-soothing mechanism. We know that cats will purr in order to alleviate anxiety, so kneading could serve a similar use. As it invokes something from kittenhood, it could provide a feeling of warmth and safety.
Kneading is usually accompanied by purring and can sometimes seem like cats are in a hypnotic-like state as they rhythmically go through the motions. It’s the ultimate state of relaxation.
4. Marking Territory
Some behaviorists suggest that kneading may be a form of territory-marking. Of course, cats are quite territorial, as you may observe during the introduction of a new cat to your resident animal where fighting usually ensues if not done gradually.
Spraying and urine marking are common behaviors one can see with domestic cats – both outdoor and even indoor ones – as this instinct is retained from when they were wild. Given this, it isn’t out of the norm to expect that cats may have other tools in which to mark what is their property or territory.
Cats have scent glands in their paw pads. By stretching their paws open and closed, they can imbue some of their particular smell or scent into whatever surface they’re touching. This lets other cats know that this area or spot is claimed.
Cats’ wild ancestors have this particular habit of patting down foliage and checking for any unwanted surprises before laying down for a nap or whenever they need to give birth. In return, by beeping the ground with their paws, they get to rub off their paw pads’ scent glands on the surface.
It’s a form of ownership. This means that when your cat sits on your lap kneading you, he or she may be saying, “This is my person!”
5. Making Their Beds
Although we usually think cats will sleep anywhere, an additional hypothesis that isn’t as widely mentioned in the literature is that kneading may be another holdover behavior. But this is not from when the cat was a kitten but from a much older behavior – from before cats were domesticated.
Specifically, it may relate to when cats had to push down on the foliage or tall grass in their environment. This is in order to make a comfortable and suitable bed/spot to rest that was still hidden from potential predators or even a safe spot where they could give birth.
We even see that modern-day large wild cats like lions and cheetahs do something similar to kneading before laying down, so there is definite weight to this argument. Furthermore, domestic cats often will knead before laying down for a nap, so it could just be that they’re trying to get their bed as comfy as possible.
6. Mating Ritual
When intact female cats are about to go into heat, some will start kneading more frequently. Although not fully understood, some suggest that this may serve as an indicator to male cats that they are ready and willing to mate.
Female cats in estrus will meow loudly, urine mark, and oftentimes become very affectionate. These are all things that can be associated with kneading as attention-seeking behavior; in this case, to get the attention of a male cat.
Overall, kneading is a positive behavior indicating that the cat is happy and secure and it shouldn’t be discouraged. Punishment, especially for instinctive behaviors, does not work for cats.
However, it is possible for cats to obsessively knead. If coupled with other stereotypic behaviors, this may indicate that they are stressed or at the very least, bored or lacking appropriate stimulation. In this case, spending more time with your cat – brushing, playing, and just general attention can do wonders.
Offering sources of enrichment is also a good idea. Things such as toys, scratching pads or posts, or even “cat tv” which consists of bird and other nature sounds to keep your kitty entertained can come in handy.
Cats may cause injury to a person if they knead particularly vigorously. The best thing to do is keep their nails trimmed or try to redirect the kneading to a soft blanket or towel, as opposed to your leg.