Does your cat do punchies, make bread, or tread on the bed coverings or on you? If youre unsure what picture to bring to mind here, thats because these are private euphemisms for the delightful feline behavior more often known as kneading: The rhythmic forward rolling of alternating left and right front paws, in the motion that humans use in kneading bread dough.
Cats that knead do so on soft objects – a quilt or pillow or the stomach of their human companion. We think its a remnant behavior from their kittenhood, says Tracy Kroll, DVM, an animal behavior resident at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Kittens knead at their mothers teats, for reasons not fully known. It may serve some nutritional function or it may express their comfort in the place where they relieve their earliest hungers. If we become the object of our cats occasional kneading, he may at that moment associate us with his birth mother.
Irresistible affection or marking
For whatever reason its done, kneading us, like its homonym needing us, melts our hearts. Its usually accompanied by purring or by head or body rubbing the kneadee. Kneading cats take on a trance-like look as if lost in pleasure. Kroll, a graduate of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, described that look as focused contentment and believes it is probably a sign of affection. If aimed at us, it certainly evokes our affection in return. This may then reinforce and strengthen kneading behavior.
In addition to expressing comfort and affection, kneading may also serve a marking or communication function that we do not currently understand.
Cats have marking glands in their paws. While probably communicating affection, kneading may also mark a spot. Our cats friendliness then comes with the feline practicality of depositing small amounts of personal scent, thereby making us his.
Sometimes it hurts when were kneaded because our cats claws are usually extended. The motion is similar to how cats move their paws when scratching a tree trunk or scratching post, an instinctive behavior that serves to slough off old nails. In addition to its other possible functions, kneading may also serve this same instinctive nail-maintenance purpose. Any resulting scratching may be dangerous to those with more vulnerable skin, such as diabetics, the elderly, or infants.
A distinctly feline behavior
Kroll invites us to take a kittys kneading as a compliment. But, she cautions, it cannot be imposed or taught. Making a cat knead on us would be like grabbing a strangers flaccid hand, pumping it, and then thinking thats a genuine handshake, says Kroll. If it occurs as an expression of affection from our cat, it comes out of a mutual relationship built on a long-built connection steeped in trust. But if youre never kneaded, it does not mean you are not needed or loved by your kitty. Some cats, by nature, simply tend toward tactile expressions of their relationships and others do not, says Kroll. Also, some cats take to kneading on an inanimate object such as a quilt rather than on us, for reasons that are no reflection on our relationship.
Whatever its purpose, kneading is a distinctly feline behavior, Kroll believes. If you needed another reason to believe your cat is special, the capacity to knead is one.