Cats knead for all sorts of reasons! Here’s the scoop on what kneading means and how to handle the discomfort when your cat kneads on you.

By Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB
August 24, 2020
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You’re binge-watching your favorite show on Saturday afternoon. Halfway into the first season, 12 pounds of warm, furry kitty with 1-inch-long nails jumps onto your lap and begins kneading—mixing his paws backs and forth, in and out, across your body a couple seconds at a time. You can see and hear he’s happy, with his little bits of drooling and loud purrs. But you’re in some pain. 

Maybe your cat is a bit smaller and his nails are a bit shorter, but if you’re a cat person you have likely experienced having your kitty “make bread” on your lap. Ever asked yourself, why do cats knead? Here’s what you knead—er, need—to know about this common cat behavior. 

Common Reasons Cats Knead Their Owners

1. Kitten Dreams

Kneading starts in kittenhood. When suckling, kittens purr and knead their paws on Mom. This is a time of safety and comfort. One of the reasons we love our domestic cats so much is they still exhibit some kitten-like behaviors such as kneading and purring. Cats who remember the joy of being close to their mother and littermates and are closely bonded with their pet parent may exhibit kneading. At the end of the day, your cat is expressing love. What could be better?

2. You Taught It!

Cat behaviors, even innate ones and those learned in kittenhood, can be reinforced. If you pay attention to your cat when he kneads on you, he is likely to repeat that behavior in the future. Even if you didn’t actively reinforce his behavior by giving attention, petting, or praise, lying down on something soft and warm is inherently reinforcing. That reinforcement keeps the behavior strong. 

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3. Bedding Down

As you may have noticed, your cat lies down on your lap when he’s done with the kneading ritual. This may be an ancient behavior pattern passed down from wild cats who kneaded grass in order to make a bed. There is still a wild cat in your pampered kitty! 

4. I Love You. You Should Smell Like Me!

Cats leave their scent on the things they love or desire to mark as their own. You’ve seen it before as your cat rubs his face on you or your furniture. He also leaves scent when he scratches on his favorite scratching post. It’s possible he’s leaving his scent on you via the glands in his feet. Consider this a compliment. You are his!

5. Cat-listhenics

Your cat could be getting a workout. Seriously, moving his feet back and forth, flexing and extending those muscles can feel good and benefit your cat’s flexibility.

Lessening the Discomfort from Kneading

Regardless of why your cat is kneading, there isn’t any real reason to stop him from performing this behavior. However, if his nails are long, it may not feel very comfortable for you!

To alleviate the discomfort of cat kneading, try placing a thick, soft folded blanket on your lap so you can’t feel his nails. If you always put that blanket on your lap and pet him as he is kneading (assuming your cat likes petting), you will train him to knead only on that blanket. Think of this as kneading on cue. 

Trim your cat’s nails so they aren’t as long. Then, you’ll be less likely to get poked by his kitty daggers. If you can’t trim your cat’s nails, ask for help from your veterinarian. If your cat is afraid at the vet, there are tons of great resources to learn how to alleviate your pet’s fear and anxiety.

How to Stop Your Cat from Kneading on You

If by chance you don’t love your cat’s attempts to knead on you, there are things you can do to redirect his affection. When you go to sit down, put that thick, soft blanket next to you on the sofa. When your cat kneads on you, gently pick him up and put him on that blanket. If your cat doesn’t like to be picked up, you can shift onto your side so he slides off onto the sofa.

Then, as he kneads on the blanket, praise him, pet him, or put a small cat treat on the blanket. You can even train him to do this on a verbal cue, so when he approaches you can ask him to go to the blanket. Alternatively, you can distract him with a toy so he moves off of your lap. 

One note: Don’t yell at your cat for kneading, hit him, or toss him off of your lap. First of all, this isn’t the most effective training method. Second, it just plain isn’t nice. You love your cat, why scare or startle him? You can find out more about cat training and behavior in the book Decoding Your Cat

The good news is, you can bet that if your cat is kneading, he is blissfully happy. Put an extra thick blanket on your lap and enjoy!