“Simply put, kneading brings cats peace and comfort,” says Georgie Chadwick, Hospital Manager at Firehouse Westlake.
Kneading is when cats rhythmically push their paws against a soft surface, often with a kneading motion like the way dough is kneaded.
A kitten instinctually kneads at the air
Kneading: A Kitten’s Basic Needs
Kneading is a behavior deeply rooted in a cat’s early life experiences.
As kittens, they pushed on their mother’s belly while nursing. This instinctual behavior serves 3 needs in their early development:
–Stimulates Milk Flow: Newborn kittens knead to stimulate milk flow from their mother’s mammary glands. The rhythmic motion releases oxytocin in the mother, promoting milk production and ensuring their kittens get necessary nutrition.
–Bonding and Comfort: Kneading is like a warm, fuzzy hug for kittens. The gentle pressure of kneading, combined with the warmth and security of the mother’s presence, creates a sense of safety and contentment in the young ones.
–Marking Territory: Cats have scent glands in their paws. As they knead, they leave behind subtle scent marks; it’s like claiming their space and saying, “This spot is mine!”
Then Why Do They Still Knead When They’re Older?
As cats grow into adulthood, many continue to knead as a habit or nostalgic behavior. It’s like a warm hug from the past.
“My cats love to knead on soft blankets,” says Savannah, “fresh out of the dryer and when still warm.”
“There’s nothing like a fluffy blanket for my kittens,” says Ali, Hospital Manager at Firehouse Belterra. “They’ll immediately jump on it and begin to knead.”
It may also offer stress relief. Just like we engage in stress-relieving activities, like squeezing a stress ball, cats may knead when they are feeling anxious or stressed. The rhythmic motion can have a calming effect. This helps them cope with environmental stressors.
Additionally, it can help create a safe space. When cats knead on a particular spot, they may be creating a safe and comfortable space for themselves. The scent-marking aspect of kneading could be a way for cats to claim ownership of their favorite spots and make them feel more secure.
Mesmerizing, right? It is for the cat, too. Kneading helps them calm down and relax.
Communication Through Kneading
Kneading is more than a means of self-comfort, it can also serve as a means of communication between cats and their human companions or among other animals.
Cats may knead to grab their owner’s attention. They might be trying to initiate affection or playtime.
“My cat was kneading on my toddler’s leg last weekend. In his crib. At 6:52am,” says Kelly, Director of Operations for Firehouse/Goodheart. “Note to self: close bedroom doors so I can control wake-up times.”
Kneading can also mark you as theirs. Leaving their scent is a way for cats to bond with their human and create a stronger connection.
Last, it can establish hierarchy. In multi-cat households, kneading can be a part of their social dynamics. Dominant cats may knead to assert their authority and let other cats know their position in the hierarchy.
As you can see, kneading is a multi-faceted behavior that is both instinctual and learned.
From kittenhood through adulthood, cats continue to knead as a way to express emotions, seek comfort, bond with their loved ones, and communicate with their environment.