There are myriad reasons behind this usually endearing behavior.
Whether you call it “making biscuits” or merely refer to it as kneading, why cats do it is a very common question among owners. You’ve probably experienced it: A cat jumps into your lap, circles around and begin pressing down on you one paw at a time—with a distant look in her eyes. Sometimes her claws are completely retracted, other times they aren’t (and that’s when it becomes quite uncomfortable).
The truth is, there are many reasons why cats knead. Here are five of the more common reasons as to why a cat kneads.
1. Because it’s Instinctual
The most logical answer is that kneading is an instinctual behavior that at one time helped your cat meet her most base instinct: Survival.
In order for kittens to nurse from the mama cat, they must knead their mother’s mammary glands to stimulate the flow of milk. The kitten is immediately “rewarded” with milk for this behavior. Since we all know that great positive training lasts a lifetime, it’s quite possible your cat remembers she must “knead” in exchange for a reward. That reward might be your warm lap or a reminder that it’s time to put the book down and feed your cat.
Kneading provides sustenance, comfort and security; which means that in this simple action, three base needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are met. That’s a lot of reward for only a little work.
2. To Show the Love
Cats have a number of scent glands near the base of their claws (which is just one more reason it’s cruel to declaw). These scent glands emit pheromones that are as individual as a fingerprint and act as a marker, which helps your cat indicate what is and isn’t her property. This act of kneading might be a way for your cat to claim you as her own. What a privilege.
It’s also one of the reasons cats have such a fine tuned sense of direction: they can quite literally follow their own scent home.
3. To Help You Have a Better Day
Kneading is never done in times of stress, fear or anger. If your cat becomes suddenly threatened, angry or fearful, the kneading will come to an abrupt stop. Since cats only knead when they are happy, it’s fairly easy to conclude that your cat is kneading because she wants to show you that she’s happy and maybe, just maybe, she wants you to be happy ,too.
4. To Stretch Their Claws
Your cat’s claws are complex tools that perform many different functions. Since cats naturally shed the outer sheath of their claws every so often to allow new, sharper claws to come in, it’s important for a cat to stretch out her claws and help release that outer sheath.
Other times, the new claws have just come in and it might be that she’s giving one or two of them a test run.
5. To Claim You
Just before entering estrus (going into heat), female cats will often knead the ground or a male cat to show she is ready to mate. Your cat might be transferring this behavior onto you to show that she’s officially your cat and happy to be your (platonic) partner in life.
About the Author: Stacy Mantle is a fulltime freelance writer, bestselling author and founder of PetsWeekly.com. She resides in the deserts of the Southwest with a few dogs, several cats and a very understanding husband.