Why do cats knead? 6 surprising reasons

Cat kneading blanket
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Why do cats knead?”, is wondered by many pet owners with furry felines at home. There is nothing better than snuggling your kitty. They’re so warm and cozy and a good cuddle session can melt all your worries away. That is until they start kneading in your lap and if their claws are out, that can be super uncomfortable. Trust us, we know.

You can invest in the best cat beds and your furry feline will still want to give their paws a workout in your lap. So, why do cats knead? The good thing is that it is not a problem to worry about and it is completely normal.

We spoke to vet, Dr. Hannah Godfrey, and found out possible answers to the question, “Why do cats knead?”

Dr. Hannah Godfrey BVetMed MRCVS
Dr. Hannah Godfrey

Dr. Hannah Godfrey has been Veterinary Surgeon since 2011. She began treating all species, focusing on small animals in 2014. In 2018 she moved to a smaller independent practice, where she continued to care for the animal community. Since 2023, she has been working as an Editor for a global medical communications company. 

1. To stretch their muscles

Cat stretching on the sidewalk

(Image credit: Getty Images)

 Stretching is one of the reasons cats knead. You’ve not seen a yoga master in action until you’ve seen a kitty flex and stretch, and when it comes to a mat, who needs one when they have your lap?

One of the ways a cat keeps their muscles supple and healthy is through kneading, which lets them work out any kinks they have. You might have noticed your cat kneading and stretching at the same time – that’s because the two complement each other, and help them to get a full-body workout. 

If you’re finding all those yoga poses to be a bit much on your muscles, we recommend choosing one of the best cat scratching posts that you can set up and use to redirect your kitty when your legs need a break. The taller the better, as this will provide them with the length and depth of stretch their muscles crave.  

SmartCat The Ultimate 32-in Sisal Cat Scratching Post

 SmartCat The Ultimate 32-in Sisal Cat Scratching Post 

 A 32” post that will allow your cat to stretch and tone their body. Covered in woven sisal, this post won’t snag your feline’s nails giving them the perfect place to get their claws out.  

2. To mark their territory

Cat stretching

(Image credit: Getty Images)

 As far as your kitty’s concerned, you belong to them, and they’re not afraid to mark you to keep other curious cats away - the last thing your feline wants is to have your heart stolen by a rival, hence their behavior that has you imploring, “why do cats knead?”

Dr. Hannah Godfrey says, “When cats knead, they distribute their scent from the scent glands in their feet, so they’re also scent marking and creating an environment that feels safe because it smells of them.” 

3. As a way of showing love

Cat sitting on owner's lap

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The answer to why cats knead could be as a simple means of affection. You might have noticed that when your cat is on your lap and you’re petting them their kneading may become deeper and more insistent. “If they’re feeling contented and having an affectionate, snuggly moment with their owner – perhaps it’s because they feel a similar kind of safety, security, and love that they did with their mother as a kitten,” adds Dr. Godfrey.

While cat communication may sometimes feel harder to decipher than that of our canine companions, their love is always on display – we just need to know cat body language and what to look out for.  

4. To prepare their resting spot

Cat kneading bed

(Image credit: Getty Images)

 Have a kitty that seems to knead for hours before it finally settles? When it comes to preparing to rest, your cat has a whole routine they need to go through before they can finally settle into their favorite cat sleep positions

If you have a canine companion, you may have noticed they do the same thing, turning around in circles before finally lying down. Kneading is the kitty cat equivalent, and it helps your cat create a comfy space to lie down in.

Since their scent is distributed from the glands in their feet, some cats do this to make their sleeping space an environment that feels safe and cozy to them. 

5. It's a behavior developed in kitten-hood

Cat nursing kittens

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Kneading is one of the first things a kitten learns to do after they’re born. Dr. Godfrey says, “Cat kneading is a natural behavior that begins as kittens when they knead on their mother’s mammary glands to stimulate milk production during feeding.”

So, if kneading is a way of helping a young kitten to nourish themselves, why do they continue to do it long after they’ve been weaned? The most likely answer is that it’s comforting. When they were little, the act of kneading produced a reward that made them feel all warm and fuzzy, so even after they’re all grown up, they associate the act of kneading with those same satisfying feelings. 

6. She may be in heat

Cat sitting in front of couch

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While it’s not the most common reason, there are times when a female cat will get her flirt on by way of kneading. Kneading her paws just before she goes into heat is a way for a female feline to call all the boys to her yard and let them know she wants to mate. If you want to know how to tell when a cat is in heat, this may be one of the signs. 

How to get your cat to stop kneading

Cat reaching for toy

(Image credit: Getty Images)

 Legs can’t take it anymore? That’s totally understandable. Be sure to keep the best nail grinders for pets around to keep your kitty’s nails trimmed, preventing sharp hooks and removing a lot of the pain you feel when they knead you.

You can also try diverting your cat’s attention by getting them interested in something else. The best cat toys are a great option, and there are also plenty of fun games to play with cats that can keep them occupied on something other than your lap.

If you love your cat being on your lap then place a thick blanket or cushion on your lap, and have your kitty curl up on that. This way you get to bond, they get to knead, and your lap escapes from it all unscathed!

If you want to know more about quirky cat behaviors, check out things you only know if you’re a cat owner and the differences between a kitten and a cat.

Kathryn Williams
Freelance writer

Kathryn is a freelance writer who has been a member of the PetsRadar family since it launched in 2020. Highly experienced in her field, she's driven by a desire to provide pet parents with accurate, timely, and informative content that enables them to provide their fur friends with everything they need to thrive. Kathryn works closely with vets and trainers to ensure all articles offer the most up-to-date information across a range of pet-related fields, from insights into health and behavior issues to tips on products and training. When she’s not busy crafting the perfect sentence for her features, buying guides and news pieces, she can be found hanging out with her family (which includes one super sassy cat), drinking copious amounts of Jasmine tea and reading all the books.