Kneading involves massaging an object with the front legs, which extend and retract, one leg at a time.
This massaging action, named for its resemblance to the kneading of dough, is repeated rhythmically. You may have spotted your cat kneading and wondered how the hell he developed such behavior.
So why do cats knead? Does that tell us anything about how they feel, and is there anything you can do if they knead you painfully while sitting on your lap?
The evolving context of kneading
Cats start kneading when they are just tiny kittens, still nursing from their mother. Kneading is associated with suckling, which helps stimulate a mother cat’s milk production through the release of oxytocin and likely evolved for this reason.
Kneading also has another evolutionary advantage. It can be used as a form of tactile and pheromone communication between the kitten and its mother.
Cats have scent glands in their soft pads, and when they knead, these glands release pheromones (chemical messages used to communicate).
Kneading on their mother releases pheromones associated with bonding, identification, health status, and many other messages.
One of these, known as the “cat calming pheromone”, is released by the sebaceous glands around the mammary glands.
Pheromones are not only important for bonding between mother and cubs. Calming pheromone for cats also has the potential to treat aggression in adult cats.
If kneading is kitten behavior, why does my adult cat still do it?
Although kneading evolved to stimulate milk production and to express chemical and tactile messages between the kitten and its mother, it is also a common behavior in adult cats, because of what is called neoteny.
Neoteny occurs when an animal retains its juvenile physical or behavioral traits into adulthood. These traits are likely to benefit cats when they need to socialize with humans and other cats or animals in the household.
Kneading, in particular, can be carried over into adulthood because it can help communicate messages.
Kneading on your lap is a cat’s way of saying “we’re affiliated” or “you’re in my social group.” Or, to be very human, “you are my person”.
We can also reinforce the kneading by rewarding our cat with attention when he does it.
Some cats like to knead soft or woolen blankets while sucking on the fabric, as if it were a pacifier. It can be relaxing or calming for the cat because of this association.
What Does Kneading Say About How Our Cats Feel?
In most cases, kneading probably indicates that your cat is comfortable.
However, if kneading (and especially sucking) happens very frequently, for a long time, seems compulsive, or starts to damage your cat’s paws, legs, or mouth, it may be a sign that your cat is stressed or he’s in pain and needs to see a vet.
Kneading and sucking can become compulsive, a particular problem in Siamese and Burmese cats.
Some cats don’t knead at all. Just like people, cats are individuals and like to show they are comfortable or affiliated with you in their own way.
To help! My kneading cat hurts my legs
Kneading is a normal behavior that can play a big role in your cat feeling connected to you. If your cat’s claws are a little too involved for your liking, invest in a thick blanket that you can cover your legs with. Avoid scolding them or kicking them off your lap.
Instead, reward kneading where claws are minimal by showing more attention by patting or handing out a treat when your cat kneads as desired.
You can even add a signal to request that the claws go away. Something short like “pads!” would be a good option. Simply associate the word and a food reward with the behavior you want.
And if you need your cat more than it kneads you, that’s fine too.
Susan Hazel, Senior Lecturer, School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, University of Adelaide and Julia Henning, PhD Candidate, University of Adelaide
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.