If you own a cat then you have probably watched it knead blankets, pillows, or even your own lap with its paws. Kneading is when a cat pushes in and out with its feet, alternating between the left one and the right one.
Some cats will retract their claws as they knead while other cats will extract their claws as they push forward and then retract their nails as they pull back.
Colloquially owners like to refer to this motion as ‘making bread’ or ‘making biscuits’ because it looks similar to the way you would flatten out dough before baking.
Why do cats knead? No one know for sure, but there are a few possible reasons.
Kneading could be a leftover behavior from childhood.
Newborn kittens will knead against their mother while they snuggle close for food in order to stimulate the flow of milk. It is an instinctive behavior.
When older cats knead, it is because it is a leftover trait from childhood. They associate the behavior with their mother — AKA the feeling of safety and security — so they perform that same behavior around the people they love the most.
Since the behavior originated while getting milk from their mother, that is why they will sometimes suckle on the blanket or pillow they are kneading.
As most pet owners know, it is common for cats to purr as they knead, which suggests they find the activity comforting. It is a sign they are happy. That they are exactly where they want to be.
Kneading could be a behavior from pre-domestication.
Before kittens were given plush beds to sleep in and cat trees to climb inside the living room, they lived outdoors. To make an area comfortable, they would knead the soil to make a spot for themselves. They would do the same thing before giving birth.
It is a way for them to make an area more comfortable before settling down, the same way that a dog will turn in circles before plopping into his bed for the night.
It is also common for female cats to knead right before they go into heat as a way to alert male cats. You can tell this is happening because it will be followed by meows, yowls, and urine left around the house as markings.
Even though it could get irritating, you should never discourage this behavior because it comes naturally to them. You cannot prevent your cat from going into heat unless you have them spayed and sterilized.
Kneading could be a way to claim an area.
Cats have scent glands hidden inside of their paws. That means when they touch something, they are claiming it. It is a territorial marker. If another cat comes across the area, then it will know that someone else has been there first, someone else has already taken claim of the place.
That is also why some cats will scratch. They want to leave their mark. They want to make sure that their home remains their home.
No matter what the reason is behind kneading, you might not want it happening. You cannot stop your cats from performing the behavior, but you can always keep their claws trimmed so that they don’t end up cutting apart your skin or ruining your furniture.
You could also keep a towel beside your spot on the couch so you can place it atop your lap whenever your cat is in the mood to knead to protect your clothing.
As a last resort, you can distract them with a toy or try pulling them into a resting position to sleep — but you should never punish them for an activity as instinctive as kneading. It comes naturally to them.