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What does it mean when your cat kneads on you? Discover why cats 'make biscuits' on soft blankets and more

Although you may refer to it as 'pawing', ‘making biscuits’ or ‘playing the piano’, the behaviour commonly known as kneading is when cats repetitively push each forepaw into a soft surface, often a blanket or the owner that they happen to be standing on at the time.

brown-and-white tabby kitten kneading their front paws on a white fleece blanket

Kneading is actually a behaviour cats learn as kittens, but it sometimes stays with them through to adulthood. As a kitten, kneading serves a practical purpose. Nursing kittens knead around the teat of their mother in order to better stimulate the flow of milk. Therefore, they get a reward for this behaviour in the form of nutritious milk.

Could your cat be trying to stimulate milk from you as they knead your body? Not likely. The actual answer is that no one truly knows why this behaviour is carried into adulthood by some cats.

Kneading as a kitten makes sense because it has a purpose, but kneading as an adult cat does not appear to have a purpose. The key focus there being on the word 'appear'. Although we cannot see a purpose, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. Cats will rarely exhibit a behaviour for no reason.

1. It feels good

grey tabby cat lying on their side with their paw stretched towards the camera

The most widely shared theory is that when practising this behaviour, cats experience similar feelings of contentment that they had while kneading as a kitten.

Although we don’t know if they are actually getting the feel-good factor from kneading, it would be safe to assume that if there was no reward for the behaviour then the cat would stop doing it. It could be that kneading causes the release of chemical signals in the brain that contribute to the flow of happy and relaxing hormones. If the cat can create their own natural high, it would make sense to keep kneading.

2. It's an automatic response

brown tabby cat lying down with their front paws stretched towards the camera

Rather than kneading by choice because it feels good, it’s also possible that it is a more ingrained automatic response.

Kittens naturally know to knead their mother to stimulate milk, so it could be that the same sensation on their paws that caused them to knead in kittenhood could also be experienced later on. It may be hard-wired into their brain to start kneading when they feel certain textures under their paws.

3. It's an inherited behaviour

long-haired ginger-and-white cat lying down with their front paw stretched towards the camera

Finding out more about the kneading behaviours of wildcats may provide further insight into this curious behaviour. Would cats in their natural habitat be prone to kneading, or is it only pet cats with a comfy blanket or human lap that do it?

Our domestic cats have evolved most recently from African wildcats and there is a lesser supported theory that kneading is inherited from their need to pat down areas of long grass to make it comfortable to sleep on. However, as African wildcats are both predator and prey in their natural habitat, they usually prefer to sleep in raised areas to look out for predators rather than in grass on the ground. Our pet cats share a similar preference for high-up places as well, often to sleep or if they’re spooked by something, so make sure your own pet cat has access to a bed off the ground.

The enigma of why our adult cats knead will continue to be debated and investigated. What we do know for certain is that this cute kitten behaviour gives owners and their cats plenty to purr about and there’s no harm in that is there? Well, maybe if they’ve got sharp claws!

Find out more information about cat behaviour.

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