If you love cats—or cat memes—you may be familiar with kneading. Forelimbs outstretched, a kneading cat will press each paw in turn into a soft surface as if walking in place, often purring as it does so.
But why? Behavior experts have proposed several reasons for why domestic cats “make biscuits,” as kneading is sometimes dubbed, although never fear, cats still retain their mystery. “Some of these are just theories because we don’t know,” says Susan Nelson, a veterinarian at Kansas State University. “Cats don’t get the funding for studies like dogs do.”
Kneading begins in kittens as an instinctual behavior that is associated with feeding—it’s not something cats ever have to learn, says Leticia Fanucchi, an animal behavior scientist at Oklahoma State University. “The way the behavior starts is: they knead the mother’s mammary glands to actually suck the milk,” she says. The kitten’s kneading, she adds, stimulates milk flow and may also release oxytocin, a social bonding hormone, in the mother.
Adult cats sometimes keep the behavior long after they have fully developed. It’s not unusual for domesticated animals to retain juvenile traits into adulthood—a phenomenon called neoteny that also explains, for example, why dogs look and act more like wolf cubs than adult wolves.
Adult cats’ connection with their earliest days might also help explain when and where they decide to knead—always on something soft and often on a favorite human or fellow pet in the household.
“It’s possible that some of these juvenile behaviors we see that used to be directed at the mother are now directed at the owner,” says Kristyn Vitale, a certified applied animal behaviorist at Unity Environmental University. “Cats will knead on preferred people in the house or their favorite person, so kneading can also be that affiliative, social behavior that can help build a bond.”
Of course, adult cats aren’t expecting their favorite blanket or human to start lactating. Instead kneading usually means the cat feels happy, friendly and safe, according to Vitale. (Occasionally, injured cats will knead and purr, which experts think may be an attempt to self-soothe, but this is a less common use of the behavior.)
The behavior also has physical consequences. Fanucchi says that kneading stretches a cat’s muscles and activates scent glands in its paws, which can be a friendly way for the animal to stake its claim on a favorite human or sleeping spot. Things can get a little messy, too. “Some of these cats start drooling as well when they knead—those are the really happy guys,” Nelson says.
To show your cat you feel the same way, you’ll need to read its emotions, Vitale says. “Some cats might want to be petted while they’re kneading on you; some cats might just want to be talked to; some cats might just want to knead and have no other interaction with you,” she says. “There’s so much individual variability.”
Because of kneading’s positive associations and innate nature, experts say it’s important to avoid punishing the behavior—even if your cat’s claws are occasionally painful. Instead you can strive to keep those claws trimmed (but don’t declaw your pet; that’s harmful) and consider grabbing a plush blanket or pillow to protect yourself. “Try not to discourage [kneading] too much because they’re actually showing you a sign of affection,” Nelson says.
But while kneading is a surefire sign that your cat likes you, don’t be offended if it isn’t big on the behavior. “If your cat doesn’t knead, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a bond with you. There are probably other affiliative behaviors they’re engaging in, like purring or rubbing on you or even just sitting next to you,” Vitale says. “These can all show that the cat has a strong relationship with you as well.”