What to Know About Kneading in Cats

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on February 20, 2024
3 min read

Cats make wonderful companions, but they also do strange things we don’t always understand. You may notice your cat “making biscuits” or kneading on your lap or a blanket. Sometimes, your cat may drool or look like they’re in a trance when kneading. Other times, they may be doing it faster and more anxiously. Read on; there may be more to your cat than you know. 

First, you should know that kneading is instinctive. Your cat will knead on a soft surface like a blanket, your lap, or other animals in your home. Your cat will often purr while kneading and drift off to sleep or zone out while doing it. There’s no confirmed reason why cats do this, but there are some theories. 

Nursing. Kittens knead while nursing to stimulate milk flow from their mom. That could explain why some cats drool a little when kneading because they’re reminded of drinking milk. This could be a leftover comfort mechanism that cats take with them as they get older. 

Comfort. You may notice your cat kneading when you’re petting them or getting comfortable in a spot on the couch. They may also specifically massage your lap to show affection and then take a nap. Massaging soft things can also help if your cat is stressed and needs to calm themselves. 

Finding a resting spot. For the same reason dogs turn in circles before lying down, cats likely knead to create a comfortable sleeping spot. This could be an instinctual behavior that carried over from wild felines making tall grass into soft piles to rest on. 

Marking territory. Your cat relies on scent to communicate. When they claim territory, they leave scent markers that come from glands on their paws. They’re putting their scent on that specific area by scratching and kneading. 

Stretching. Cats are big on naps. They spend most of their day napping, so they may need to stretch out their body when they wake up. Kneading their paws is one way to stretch out excess tension from naps and get their body ready for the next rest. 

You may find your cat's kneading sweet, or it may be uncomfortable if they knead with their claws out. It can be destructive and painful if your cat is gripping things like blankets, furniture, or household pets with their claws. To prevent harmful kneading, you can do the following things: 

  • Keep your cat’s claws trimmed short.
  • Encourage kneading specific blankets or areas. 
  • Distract the cat with treats or toys. 
  • Train your cat to sit or play with a toy instead of kneading. 
  • Put a thick blanket over your lap when your cat wants to knead on you. 
  • Don’t punish your cat; only use positive reinforcement. 

Every cat has their reason for kneading, which is entirely normal. You can’t necessarily keep your cat from kneading, and most of the time, it simply means they are content and happy. 

Some cats may knead more than others, even in your own home. This may be because some cats are needier than others and overuse their comfort mechanism. Kneading is a way that an overly anxious cat can make contact with their owner to comfort them. 

It’s essential to be patient and to understand your cat. If you’re punishing your cat for kneading, this can increase their anxiety level, making them do this more frequently. Depending on their anxiety level, your cat may knead obsessively.

Obsessive kneading is a behavioral disorder that occurs in anxious cats. These compulsive actions may release pain-relieving chemicals in your cat’s brain, making them turn to these actions to cope. If you’re giving your cat attention or food while they’re engaging in obsessive kneading or other behaviors, it may reinforce the behavior. 

This type of behavior is more common in indoor cats that become stressed by confinement. If they’re stressed out from environmental changes, you may notice obsessive kneading in cats. If so, they may have a mental disorder that needs a diagnosis from a vet. 

Your vet will do a complete physical exam and assess their history of symptoms or incidents that could cause them stress. They will also need to do tests to rule out other underlying issues (pain, decreased organ function, etc.). A detailed history could help your vet understand your cat’s underlying behavioral issues.