There are several theories. Maybe this behavior is a habit from the time they were kittens. At this age they knead while nursing in order to stimulate milk flow.
Another theory is that this is an instinct, that helped cats in the wild to check the surface they are about to lay on for any dangers or hard objects.
Cats are mysterious creatures, and they exhibit many fascinating instinctive behaviors. An especially adorable, yet perplexing, behavior is kneading. Universal among cats, the kneading behavior is named for its resembling a baker’s kneading dough.
What is Kneading?
Kneading is the rhythmic motion characterized by a cat’s alternately pushing its paws in and pulling them out of a soft, pliable surface. The kneaded object may be a toy, blanket, another animal or even a favorite person.
As the cat is kneading, its claws may either remain retracted or extended when pushing in and retracted when pulling out. The motions last anywhere from one to two seconds. While kneading, the cat will often purr or drool or even appear to be in a trance.
There are many theories that attempt to explain why cats knead. Common among all kneading behaviors, however, is that it appears to express happiness, comfort and stimulation or arousal. Why, then, do cats knead, and what purpose does it serve?
Kneading is first observed in newborn kittens as they nurse. Blind and deaf, they knead their mother’s body to stimulate milk flow.
This obviously can’t be the reason adult cats knead, however, but it’s possible they continue to associate the behavior with the safety and comfort of their mother. Adult cats sometimes even suckle the surface they’re kneading, giving further weight to this theory.
It was once widely believed that the kneading/suckling behavior resulted from prematurely separating a kitten from its mother. However, because cats that have been properly weaned may also manifest the behavior, this theory is no longer popular.
A Display of Affection
Just as the kitten both gave to and received affection from its mother while kneading her body, the adult cat is sending its owner love through kneading the owner, as the person simultaneously pets the cat. The theory here is that because the owner provides food, the cat looks to him or her as its mother.
A Pre-Domestication Instinct
Prior to domestication, cats in the wild treaded down foliage to create a comfortable surface for sleeping or birthing.
It’s also possible that they used this method to make sure there were no threatening creatures under the grass or leaves. Contemporary house cats mimic this behavior to soften a surface for their “safer” form of napping.
As territorial animals, cats use a number of ways to claim their own space. Scent glands located on their paws leave behind pheromones when they knead or scratch a surface, announcing, “This is my territory!”
Keeping in Shape
When it comes to flexibility, few animals can compete with the cat. Cats have a ritual of stretching when waking from a nap, and kneading fits perfectly into their exercise routine.
As a female cat enters estrus, or “heat,” she will sometimes knead with her paws. This is one signal she uses to let male cats know she’s ready to mate.
A Benign Behavior
Kneading is a unique cat behavior that’s not only charming and amusing but harmless as well. The behavior rarely becomes a problem unless the cat’s nails are so long they scratch the person whom they’re kneading. All it takes to resolve the issue is a simple nail trim!