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Why do cats knead or "make biscuits"?

Why do cats knead or “make biscuits”?

 

On the long list of odd cat behaviors, the kneading of the paws, sometimes called “making biscuits,” has got to be somewhere near the top.

 

What is kneading or “making biscuits”?

 

Let’s all get on the same page here first: kneading or “making biscuits” refers to a behavior in which a cat will rhythmically push and pull his paws in and out, alternating left and right, usually against a soft surface. If you’ve ever baked bread, you’ll recognize the reference to biscuits. A cat who is “making biscuits” looks like he is kneading bread dough.

 

Most, but not all, cats participate in this behavior, and the cats who do so often have their own style. Some cats open their toes, exposing their claws on the downstroke, retracting the claws as they lift the paw again. Some cats don’t extend their claws at all. Most cats knead with just their front paws, but the occasional cat will use all four.

 

But why do they do it at all?

 

What is the purpose of kneading?

 

Regardless of what Google tells you about this behavior, the truth is that no one knows why cats knead. There are theories – some more believable than others – but no science yet that provides a truly satisfying answer. Let’s explore the theories:

 

Is kneading a holdover from a cat’s nursing days?   

 

Newborn kittens knead just about from the get-go. If you’ve ever watched just-born kittens finding their way to a nipple to nurse for the first time, you could almost convince yourself that they are already kneading and nursing. Their movements are so uncoordinated, however, it’s hard to be really sure.

 

Certainly within a few days of life, kittens are undeniably kneading while they nurse. Why? Any Google search will tell you that kittens knead to stimulate milk production.[1] Is that true?

 

What is true is kittens tend to find – and stick to – a single nipple for their whole nursing career to maximize milk production for themselves. This is not a universal nursing tactic among mammals. Puppies, for example, don’t show a preference for “teat order,” the way kittens, and piglets, and other animals do.[2] Research shows that kittens start developing a preference for a particular nipple within 12 hours of birth, and by Day 3 of life, will seek out that particular nipple, even if mom flips over and a “bottom” nipple is suddenly on top.[3]

 

This tactic does ensure that mom keeps milk production up in nipples that are in use. An unused nipple simply won’t produce the same way. So, a kitten’s instinct to marry herself to one special nipple for all her nursing days will help increase the amount of milk she will get over her nursing lifetime.

 

white mother cat and kittens

But there is no evidence that kneading with paws around the nipple helps with milk production. Lactation involves a very complex interaction between hormones, reflexes, and the sucking action of a nursing baby. It is possible that kneading somehow helps fully empty the milk ducts, which, in turn, helps ensure the most robust milk supply possible for the next feeding session. But if so, it’s strange that other mammals with hands, paws, or even trotters – like human babies, puppies or piglets – don’t do it.

 

Regardless of the reason that kittens knead, they do knead, and they knead at a crucial time in their lives. Kittenhood is very important to the emotional development of any cat, and kittens who don’t get enough time with their mom often display behaviors that reflect what they missed. Biting in an adult cat, for example, can be a sign that a cat had his kittenhood cut short. (Read, “Why does my cat bite me gently?” for more information.)

 

So, it’s possible that an adult cat who is kneading is doing so because that particular motion evokes the comfort of snuggling with a caring mother and beloved littermates, and the memory of enjoying something warm and delicious, and satisfying to eat.

 

Do cats knead because they were separated from their mothers too soon?

 

A related theory is that cats who don’t get enough time with their mothers spend their lives chasing it. It’s true that adult cats who engage in suckling behaviors – in which they suck on wool, other household pets, or even their human guardians – are more likely to have a history of being taken away from their mothers too soon.

 

One scientific study confirmed that what scientists call “cross-sucking” or “non-nutritive sucking” was more often observed in cats who were weaned too soon, either because their mothers died, or because they were accidentally separated from them too early. This study looked at 1358 kittens from 301 different litters and found a clear association between early-weaning and cross-sucking.[4]

 

But the same is not true of kneading. It’s a common theory that cats who knead were separated from their mothers too soon, but there is ample evidence that is simply untrue.[5] While not all adult cats knead, it’s an extremely common behavior that seems to have absolutely no relationship to the age at which a cat was weaned. Cats who experienced a long kittenhood in the loving care of their mothers will knead.

 

Do cats knead to stretch their muscles?

 

Some people think that cats knead because it’s a great way to stretch tired or sore muscles.

cat stretching

Cats are champion stretchers. They sleep for up to 16 hours a day, and they do need to stretch upon waking to get their blood circulating after remaining immobile for so long.

 

Cats are also incredibly flexible. Watching a cat stretching and flexing is a show in itself. Cats hunch their backs until they are practically folded in half. They extend their rear legs to impossible lengths. And cats can perform a downward dog better than any canine I’ve ever met.

 

Frankly, the kneading of the paws doesn’t seem to involve a whole lot of stretching. I’ve watched cats knead stiff-legged: extending and retracting just the toes. I’ve seen kneading cats just paddling air. These cats are barely moving, let alone stretching.

 

We still don't know what kneading is, but I don’t think it’s stretching.

 

Do cats knead to mark territory?

 

Scent is everything in the cat world. Scent is communication, as when cats mark with urine to define their territory for other cats. Scent is also safety and comfort, as when cats head bunt their humans or “allorub” their fellow kitty household members.

 

When cats scratch furniture they are leaving scent. When they place their paws on you, they are leaving scent. Even when they do something we might (wrongly) interpret as naughty, like peeing on our beds, they are leaving scent.

 

cat showing paw

A cat’s paws do have special glands that release pheromones when pressed on someone or something. They also contain eccrine glands that produce scent-laden sweat.[6] Cat paws are designed to be scent-dispensing machines.

 

Putting scent on an object or person isn’t necessarily about marking or claiming, which implies possession and dominance. Cats who leave scent behind often do so to make the world smell familiar, comforting, and safe.

 

So, do cats knead to mark territory? I would suggest that a cat who is softly purring and kneading contentedly away is hardly in a territory-marking frame of mind. But they may be kneading to deposit scent for other, gentler reasons.

Is that the primary reason cats knead? I would tend to say that it is not. We know that cats are able to deposit scent by merely touching a surface with a paw. If a cat were kneading to deposit scent only, there would be no need for the continuous, rhythmic pressing that is kneading. It may, however, be a secondary benefit of making biscuits.

 

Do cats knead because they are stressed?

 

Cats perform a number of self-soothing behaviors when they are stressed, not the least of which is scent-marking, as described above.

 

Cats purr to self-soothe when they are nervous, stressed, or sick. (Read, “Why do cats purr?")

 

Cats groom, sometimes too much, when they are bored or stressed. (Read, “Excessive grooming in cats.”)

 

Cats may even eat grass to self-soothe. (Read, “Why do cats eat grass and then throw up?”)

 

In other words, cats have a lot of tools in their tool belt when it comes to self-soothing. I think it’s likely that a cat will perform a clearly comforting behavior, like kneading, when they are stressed.

 

But that doesn’t mean every time your cat is kneading, she is stressed. It only means that certain stressed cats may (or may not) use the kneading technique, on occasion, to self-soothe. 

 

Do cats knead to make a nest?

 

I don’t know about you, but when I’m tired, I plop right down onto my mattress. Many cats have a protracted bedding-down ritual that involves a lot of spinning and circling before turning in for the night.

 

cat sleeping curled up

There may have been a good reason for our house cat’s ancestors, or even for present-day outdoor cats, to participate in this nightly custom, especially in the absence of central heating and air conditioning. There is a thought that circling and circling enables a cat to curl up into the tiniest possible ball, to conserve heat. In warmer climates or on hotter days, circling would trample down grass that had absorbed the sun’s warmth all day. Some cats scratch away sun-warmed topsoil, too, to expose the cooler ground beneath when making a so-called nest.[7]

  

One oft-quoted theory is that cats also knead to make a sleeping nest, since the motion involves some squashing of a surface, and since many cats fall asleep shortly after kneading.

 

I would argue that cats, who sleep 50-70% of the day, fall asleep shortly after everything they do. Just because two things happen at the same, doesn’t mean one thing is related to the other.

 

Preparing to sleep, as I’ve described above, is not the same behavior as kneading. I give this theory a big thumbs down.

 

Do cats knead when they want to mate?

 

Finally, a definite yes! Female cats in heat may purr, stretch, and knead the air while lying on their side to tell a male cat he can approach. If only everything about cat behavior was so clear and easy to interpret!

 

Do cats knead to tell us that they are happy or that they love us?

 

None of us have to be actual research scientists to agree that many kneading cats appear relaxed and happy. Cats who knead while they are being petted are obviously enjoying our attentions. Closed eyes and contented purring are further signs that they are relishing the moment.

 

Some resources suggest that cats knead to “show you that they are happy” or to “tell you that they love you.”

 

(Read, "How to do I know if my cat is happy?" for more information.)

cat kneading a blanket

 

Do cats intend to communicate with us about their inner emotions? Do they want us to understand them more deeply? Are they worried about our feelings? Are they searching for the tools to express themselves to us in the absence of spoken language?

 

Of course, we don’t truly know the mind of another human being, let alone the mind of an individual from another species. We do know that cats communicate with us about very concrete things, like their need for food or attention. But I’ll leave it to you to decide if you think your cats have more profound thoughts than that, that they are trying to convey.

 

I think it’s more important to consider what a kneading cat is inadvertently telling you by kneading on your lap and by falling into a gentle slumber afterward. He is telling you, “I choose you. I feel safe around you. I can relax around you.” And that, my kitty-loving friends, is about as good as it gets.

 

What to do (and not) if your cat kneads you with sharp claws

 

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cat claws

Do not ever punish your cat for digging her claws into your tender flesh when she is kneading. Kneading is an instinctual behavior. Your cat is unaware that she is hurting you. Punishing your cat will keep your cat from kneading on you in the future, but not because she has “learned a lesson.” Your cat will refrain from kneading on you because she has learned that you are unpredictable and unpleasant to be around. Now there’s an “ouch.”

 

That does not mean you should suffer your cat’s painful kneading. There are steps you can take to protect yourself and your relationship with your cat.

 

cat claws

Keep nails trimmed with an inexpensive nail trimmer like this one by Pet Republique. Or consider using nail guards like these from Soft Claws, but understand that not every cat will cooperate with the application process of the nail covers. (Be sure to choose the right size, too.)

 

Does your cat tend to seek out your lap in a particular chair or sofa? Keep an old towel or blanket handy and put it on your lap before the kneading session starts. If you’ve planned ahead and there’s a blanket between your lap and your cat, you can always lift your cat gently in the blanket and place him beside you on the sofa if the kneading gets too intense.

 

 

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Why do cats knead or make biscuits? Pinterest-friendly pin

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FOOTNOTES

[1] “Why Do Cats Knead?” PetMD, PetMD, 21 Jan. 2021, www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/evr_ct_why_do_cats_knead.

 

[2] Hecht, Julie. “The Common Wisdom about Dog Nipples Is Wrong.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 12 Aug. 2016, blogs.scientificamerican.com/dog-spies/the-common-wisdom-about-dog-nipples-is-wrong/.

 

[3] Hudson, Robyn & Raihani, Gina & Gonzalez, Daniel & Bautista, Amando & Distel, Hans. (2009). Nipple Preference and Contests in Suckling Kittens of the Domestic Cat Are Unrelated to Presumed Nipple Quality. Developmental psychobiology. 51. 322-32. 10.1002/dev.20371. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19259990/

 

[4] Delgado, Mikel & Walcher, Isabelle & Buffington, Charles. (2020). A survey-based assessment of risk factors for cross-sucking behaviors in neonatal kittens, Felis catus. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 230. 105069. 10.1016/j.applanim.2020.105069. www.researchgate.net/publication/342256867_A_survey-based_assessment_of_risk_factors_for_cross-sucking_behaviors_in_neonatal_kittens_Felis_catus

 

[5] “Is My Cat's Kneading Normal?” AAHA Home, www.aaha.org/your-pet/pet-owner-education/ask-aaha/is-my-cats-kneading-normal/.

 

[6] “Cats' Paws Are Fascinating Pieces of Anatomy: Pet Connection.” GoErie.com, GoErie.com, 4 Oct. 2019, www.goerie.com/entertainmentlife/20191007/cats-paws-are-fascinating-pieces-of-anatomy-pet-connection.

 

[7] Llera, Ryan, and Lynn Buzhardt. “Why Cats Turn Around Before Lying Down.” vca_corporate, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/why-cats-turn-around-before-lying-down.

 

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2 comments

  • Michael: You don’t mention what signs of depression your cat is displaying, but whatever they are, you must absolutely call your vet. Cats who just not acting like their usual selves can be ill or in pain. You must first rule out that your cat is unwell before looking for any other emotional or behavioral reasons for your cat to be displaying signs of depression.

    Dawn LaFontaine
  • I’ve got an Adult Maine Coon Cat, and I like to know if they can get "Depressed. Or
    should I call my Vet and take to her. Let me know about this.

    Michael

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