Why Do Cats Knead?

Caitlin Dempsey


Black cat sleeping with its front paw stretched out.

If you’ve ever been around a relaxed and happy cat, you many have notice them engage in the act of kneading, often accompanied by strong purring.

What is Kneading?

Kneading is a common habit among domestic cats in which they push out and pull in their front paws, often alternating between the right and left limbs, while relaxed. The cat’s digits and claws on the front paws will alternate stretching out and contracting, over and over again. The rhythmic back and forth of the motion is also affectionately known as “making biscuits” due to its similarity to kneading dough.

Some cats will also mime the suckling motion with their mouths while kneading. This is sometimes due to a cat being taking away too soon from their mother, interrupting the weaning process.

A gray tabby with ear tufts kneads and suckles a brown blanket.
An adult gray tabby cat kneading by alternating extending and contracting the front paws while suckling on a blanket. Photo: © DoraZett/stock.adobe.com.

Why do domestic cats knead, do wild cats also knead, and is it the sign of affection we think it is?

Why do some cats knead? 

The short answer here is that while kneading is commonly associated with affection and a sign of bonding, there could be other reasons for it. Kneading could be a sign of love, comfort, getting ready to sleep, or simply a way for the cat to mark their territory.

Kneading is positively reinforced

Kneading and meowing are both holdover kitten behaviors among adult cats. One of the most widely accepted theories as to why cats knead lies in their infancy. Kittens knead their mother’s mammary glands to stimulate milk flow. This natural and nurturing action creates a strong association between kneading and the comfort and reward of nourishment. Kneading also helps the kitten bond to their mother.

Gray kitten nursing on orange cat mother with grass in the background.
Kittens will knead their mothers while nursing in order to stimulate the flow of milk. Photo: © Adventuring Dave/sotck.adobe.com.

As adult cats, the repetitive motion may provide them with a sense of pleasure, relaxation, or a connection to a comforting time in their lives. Researchers believe these behaviors continue into adulthood with domestic cats because they are positively reinforced.

A meowing adult cat will usually illicit some kind of reaction from their owner whether it’s putting down more food or simply talking to the cat in a baby voice. Likewise, when an adult cat kneads near their owner, a typical response is to start petting the cat.

Cats may knead to mark their territory

Cats are territorial creatures and kneading could be a way to mark their territory. Their paws contain sweat glands that release a unique scent. By kneading on a specific object or even their human owners, they may be leaving a scent mark that communicates ownership or dominance within their territory. Cats use the pressure from the kneading motion to activate scent glands in order to mark their territory.

Cats knead before a nap

Cats will also knead to make their sleeping place more comfortable. Kneading helps to smooth out any bumps in the bedding your cat wants to sleep on.

An orange tabby sleeping on his side.
Cats often knead when settling down to relax or sleep.

Wild cats also knead

Kneading is also a common behavior seen in a range of wild cats. In the wild, cats will knead the ground or foliage to create a comfortable resting place. The act of kneading flattens any debris on the ground to make it more comfortable to sleep.

Kneading helps to soothe cats

Some cats may knead during times of stress or pain as a self-soothing mechanism, much like a human may wring their hands when nervous.

Be mindful of excessive kneading by your cat. Too much kneading might be an indication of a medical issue. If a cat’s kneading behavior suddenly changes or becomes obsessive, you should consult a veterinarian to rule out any underlying health problems.

Cats knead to sharpen their claws

Cats will also use a similar kneading action on objects in order to sharpen their claws. The alternating kneading action on a cat scratching post or a branch helps to extend out the cat’s claws. The act of a cat sharpening their claws is called stropping.

The sliding action of kneading on a firm surface helps to loosen the outer layer of the claw to reveal a sharper point. Both domestic cats and wild cats will do this kneading action to sharpen their claws.

A lion cub kneading on a tree trunk to sharpen their claws.
A lion cub kneading on a tree trunk to sharpen their claws. Photo: © Leland/stock.adobe.com.

Do cats knead out of affection?

This is a common question from cat owners because they want to believe that this behavior is a clear signal that their cat loves them. While there are other reasons for kneading, affection is one of the reasons why cats engage in this behavior. (Related: How Cats Communicate Through Purring)

A gray tabby sitting in the lap of a person wearing a burnt red sweater.
Cats will often kneading to show their affection towards their owners. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Cats are known to knead when they feel comfortable, particularly when they are in their bed or your lap getting petted. Some cats will also perform similar motions when spending quality time together. 

Why does my cat knead my partner more than me?

If you have ever felt left out because the family cat kneads while in the laps of other people and not you, you are not alone. Many couples will see a difference in the behavior of their cat depending on who they are with.

This often happens because the cat has a stronger bond with that individual. Perhaps they are the primary caregiver and the cat is grateful for food given by them.

Black cat sleeping with its front paw stretched out.
Cats have scent glands between their toes, leading some to believe that when they knead, they are also putting a familiar, comforting scent where they rest.

Why do some cats knead and other cats don’t? 

The takeaway here is that all cats are different and there is no single explanation for this cat behavior. Some animals will knead often as they have that strong connection between the motion and feelings of love and security. Other cats simply don’t knead and that’s normal as well.


Albright, J. (2021, June 14). Why do cats knead with their paws? The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-do-cats-knead-with-their-paws-156254

Bradshaw, J. W. (2016). Sociality in cats: A comparative review. Journal of veterinary behavior11, 113-124. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.09.004

This article was originally written on July 20, 2021 and has since been updated.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of Geographyrealm.com and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.