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Why do cats knead?

Posted: September 11, 2017

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As thousands of online cat videos will attest, cats have a range of unique habits.  Some bat at toys while others feel the need to contort themselves into any kind of cardboard box. Some meow all night long. Maybe you’re lucky and have a cat with a mischievous streak all her own.  Whatever strange, funny, adorable or bizarre habit your cat does have, chances are he or she shares a habit with millions of other felines — the love of kneading.

We’ve all seen it. Your feline friend begins pushing in with one paw and out with the other, as the cat appears to be kneading invisible dough. So, what are cats doing when they knead?  Why do they do it?  The truth is, no one is entirely sure. There are many theories out there, but science has yet to form a definite conclusion as to why cats knead. Nonetheless, there are some intriguing hypotheses. Let’s look at four of them.  

1. It’s behavior left over from being a kitten

Cats begin to knead as kittens. At this early stage of their life, they knead their mother's stomach to stimulate the flow of milk and feed. Long after kittens stop nursing, the habit remains. As a result, kneading is an instinctive behavior that signals when your cat is feeling especially comfortable and happy. In a sense, they are reverting back to their infancy, exhibiting intimate behavior that shows how content they are.

Well, maybe. At any rate, it’s a nice thought to have the next time your cat is kneading your thigh like they're getting ready to bake up some serious biscuits.cat

2. It’s primal, bed-making behavior

There was a time when cats were fierce predators, stalking, pouncing and hunting the forests and fields. And these fierce predators had to have time to sleep and they didn’t have fluffy cat beds. Kneading, the theory goes, was a way for cats to break down the plants and grass, patting down the leaves to make a bed to sleep in.

And one theory states that despite domesticity, this primal behavior has persisted. Though they are not really making a bed out of the forest floor, the instinct remains.

3. A nicer way to mark territory

The history of owning cats is one that includes torn upholstery, destroyed rugs and the smell left behind when a cat has marked a little piece of the world as her own. You might feed them, love them and pamper them, but cats still need you to know that even though you pay the bills, this is their territory.

Fun fact: Cats have scent glands on the bottom of their paws. This has led some experts to believe that when cats are kneading, they are marking their territory, and doing so in a way that is infinitely preferable to the tearing and spraying method.

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4. Kneading might mean needy

At times, you may have noticed your cat purring while they knead. In these cases, your feline friend may simply be trying to get your attention. They could be hungry, want to be let outside, or just eager for a good scratch behind the ears. Often it’s anybody’s guess.  So the jury will remain out. The reasons behind kneading may forever remain a mystery, but one thing is for sure – it’s awfully adorable behavior.

5. It might mean heat

Finally, when a female cat is about to go into estrus, more commonly known as heat, she will knead her paws to signal to male cats that she is able to mate.