Kneading is quite a common behavior among domestic cats. The cat pushes in and out with its paws, usually its front paws, and sometimes even with all four paws, against a soft object.
These motions may differ from cat to cat.
Some cats may alternate between the left and the right paw when kneading. Then some cats may never push out their paws, meaning they only push them in.
Also, the soft objects in question may include pillows, other animals or even the owners' laps, depending on the cat. Although these motions are quite usual for a cat, most owners are still curious about it.
Why exactly do cats knead and does this activity have any special meaning? There are several ideas concerning the reason behind this interesting cat behavior:
Behavior from when they were kittens
When your cat was a kitten, it used to instinctively knead its mother during feeding time, to stimulate the milk flow. After the kitten grows up, it still kneads against soft objects, because this activity provides comfort the cat felt with its mother during nursing.
So, cats may knead when they are being petted, as they associate such care and devotion from their owners with the times when they were kittens nurtured by their mothers.
Leftover traits from their wild ancestors
The second explanations on why cats knead is also connected with their leftover instincts. Cats may knead because it is a behavior previously associated with their wild ancestors.
Before cats were domesticated and while they were living in the wilderness, they used to knead surfaces in order to make them softer and more agreeable for giving birth or sleeping.
These wild cats may have also practiced kneading in order to check whether their environment was safe, or if there were other animals lurking nearby. In any case, this instinctive behavior may have been inherited by their domestic descendants.
Nowadays, domestic cats especially like to knead their owners' laps, maybe because they find this surface a comfortable and safe place for sleeping and relaxing.
A way to mark their territory
Cats have scent glands positioned on the pads of their paws. Cats may use kneading as a way to mark their territory.
When a cat starts kneading a pillow or any other soft object, it may actually be claiming it as its own and ensuring this fact is clear to others.
This also applies to kneading their owners; cats may knead your lap in order to mark it, and to an extension, you, as their territory.
A way to show affection to their owners
At birth, cats used to knead their mother's belly when they were kittens. Kneading may be a way to show their owners the kind of affection previously associated with their mothers.
So, while the cats are relaxing on their owners' laps and the owner is petting them, cats may knead as a way to show that they are also enjoying this interaction.
Some cats may not use their claws while kneading, but some might, so this activity, although a sign of love and affection on the part of the cat, may still hurt the owner. Some cats may even show affection to such an extent that their kneading may rip your clothes.
In these cases, it is important to know that the cat is unaware that its instinctive behavior is potentially damaging, so there is no need or use to punish the cat.
For a completely satisfying outcome for both the cat and the owner, it is advisable to trim the cat's nails or to put another soft item, such as a blanket, on your lap. This way, the cat can still show its affection through kneading, without it causing discomfort.
In conclusion, cats knead for various reasons: they might be showing affection to their owners, or marking their territories, they might be reminiscing their carefree life as kittens, or they might be trying to make a surface more comfortable.
Kneading usually shows a cat which is completely satisfied with its environment and its owners as company.
In any case, kneading is an instinctive, natural activity which can, at times, be expected from all cats.