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Your cat's need to knead

You’re reading a newspaper when suddenly your cat jumps onto your lap, forcing her way between you and the current events. She’s purring and begins to knead your lap, circling around and finding a perfect position to curl into. She is completely oblivious to your desires as she focuses on the push and pull of her front paws. She’s your cat, and she has a need to knead.

Why cats knead
The kneading behavior begins early in life, while kittens are nursing. As kittens knead their mother’s mammary glands, oxytocin is released, causing milk to flow. Animal experts believe other reasons cats knead might include:

  • To show affection
  • To mark territory: Cats have scent glands between their toes on their front paws
  • Separated from mother too early
  • Normal behavior of a female cat going into heat

While controlled research on this topic is lacking, veterinary behaviorist Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB believes all of the above reasons are likely involved in a cat’s need to knead.  

Crowell-Davis believes that because kneading represents a period of comfort and safety for kittens as they snuggle up with their mothers and siblings during nursing, cats continue this behavior to display affection toward others later in life. It also serves as a self-comforting behavior, bringing a feeling of contentment for adult cats. Similar to a child who sucks his thumb long after his mother has stopped nursing, a cat’s kneading helps him to feel comfortable and bonded to you. It’s his way of relaxing with you.

“It’s probable that [cats] leave scent from special interdigital scent glands when they knead,” says Crowell-Davis. No study has been conducted to verify the function of that scent marking, however. Crowell-Davis suggests that kneading helps to mark an area as safe. Cats have high-level olfactory senses, and like a feline aromatherapy, the cat is working to make your lap smell familiar and relaxing.

Crowell-Davis agrees that kittens who are weaned from their mothers too early (prior to 10 weeks of age) are more likely to display kneading behavior as adults.

It has been documented that female cats knead when they are going into heat. However, Crowell-Davis believes there is a difference between comfort kneading and the kneading performed while seeking a mate. More in-depth studies of paw movement are necessary to prove this hypothesis.

How to change your cat’s kneading behavior
Not a fan of your cat’s kneading on your lap? Experts agree that you should not punish your cat if he kneads. If the kneading bothers you, try to redirect your cat to a soft surface nearby. When he begins to knead on your lap, gently move him to a soft blanket or pillow, pet him, and give him treats so he is encouraged to knead that particular soft surface.

While more research could clarify this topic for cat lovers and veterinary professionals, it’s important to remember that, just like you have certain comforting behaviors, kneading is a normal, comforting behavior for many cats. So sit back, relax, and let your kitty make a comfy spot in that lap of yours.

Bekka Burton is a freelance writer and English language teacher who lives with a diva in the form of a tortoiseshell cat.



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