Published on March 16th, 2017 | by Debbie Martin0
Cat Kneading: just why do cats do it?
Cat Kneading is an activity many cats partake in, where they will stretch their paws and claws out onto the area immediately in front of them with alternate paws – often to the chagrin of the person they happen to be sitting on, or to the owner of the rug they’ve taken to dismantling. The origins of this behaviour are something of a mystery, there do exist several plausible theories.
When cats do this, it is doubtless intended as affectionate. They only do it when they’re especially content – when they’ve just settled down to nap, for instance, or when they’ve just curled up on the lap of an unsuspecting victim. This is endearing, as the intended friendliness is clear. But this impression only lasts for a moment, since, as SciShow’s Hank Green has put it, ‘kitty’s love is made out of little tiny knives’.
Why would a cat engage in such bizarre behaviour? Should we take it as passive-aggressive? Is it a sign that our cats harbour secret resentments? It seems unlikely. A more plausible explanation, perhaps, is that it simply feels good and that the cat is quite oblivious to how painful it can be to the person whose thighs are being lacerated! In much the same way as we sometimes stretch in order to generate a cathartic rush and to get our limbs ready for action again, a cat might knead in order to stretch its paws and keep them limber.
Another theory holds that cats knead in order to mark their territory. This theory is favoured because cat’s paws contain scent glands, which secrete a distinctive cocktail of chemicals, by which other cats can recognise them. When the cat kneads the ground with its paws, it therefore marks its territory.
There is one good reason to doubt this explanation, however. Wild cats – specifically, those to whom our domestic cats are most closely related, do no knead. Or, to put it more accurately, they only knead in certain situations: when they are very young and showing affection to their mother and when they are mating.
This leads us neatly to another theory, which suggests that this behaviour is neotenic. What this means, essentially, is that a behaviour from the cat’s juvenile state has remained during adulthood. If you would like an example from another species, then try to think of a grown man who still sucks his thumb.
The domestication of the cat involved human selection breeding in desirable traits at the expense of disagreeable ones. The behaviours we humans desire in our pets have a great deal in common with the behaviours a cat might display toward its mother, or a potential mate. For example, when a wildcat is young, it kneads at its mother’s chest in order to signal that it is hungry. This prompts the mother to begin producing milk.
Wild cats are not sociable creatures. They are solitary hunters, who only interact with their own species at specific times (if one discounts the interaction wherein a predator hunts and eats its prey). As one might imagine, this arrangement is vastly removed from the one the modern domestic cat now enjoys.
Adult wildcats are cold, cruel hostile and aggressive – none of which are desirable traits in a pet. Human beings prefer their pets to be warm, affectionate, friendly and passive – all traits which younger wildcats display toward their mothers and all traits which human beings have selected for. Through this process of selection, many other childlike behaviours may have been carried over and among them is kneading. This theory is leant further weight by the fact that some cats also chew and suck on the thing that they are kneading at.
Finally, kneading might also be a nervous habit, accumulated over time and reinforced by some element of domestic life we do not yet understand. This is an explanation for many human behaviours and so there seems little reason to doubt that cats can develop the same sorts of twitches and tells. If this were an article written by a cat, for a cat audience, it might well seek to solve the mystery of why humans tap their fingers, bite their nails or kick the chair of the passenger in front of them. Of course, as soon as one poses this question, a whole landscape of possible explanations, which even the most advanced feline behavioural studies have not yet begun to explore. Suffice to say, kneading is a relatively common activity, enjoyed by cats the world over – as painful as it may be to their long-suffering owners!
Why a cat is kneading will definitely differ based on their personality and traits, it could be a way to get themselves comfy on a spot they have chosen to lie on or to mark territory or even just to sharpen their claws a little.