Why Do They… knead with their paws?

his occasional series explores the reasons for cats’ often intriguing behavior. If you would like to submit a question, please write to CatWatch Editor, 800 Connecticut Ave., Norwalk, CT 06854, or email catwatcheditor@cornell.edu.

Bonnie Baker


Theories on cats’ kneading or treading — rhythmically moving their front paws up and down while flexing and extending their toes — run the gamut from scent marking to mimicking their ancestors in the wild who tamped down grass to create a nest. Kneading, also known as making biscuits, is certainly one of cats’ most beguiling behaviors.

“They always choose soft surfaces like a human lap,” says Katherine A. Houpt, VMD, Ph.D., diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and emeritus James Law Professor of Animal Behavior at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. The reason harkens back to kittenhood. “The most likely reason is vestigial kneading to stimulate milk letdown in the mother cat.”

Some owners are uncomfortable with their cat’s kneading them and try a diversion like brushing them. Not a wise idea, Dr. Houpt says. “Cats are treating us like their mothers because we provide food. Unless the claws need trimming, I see no reason to discourage it. Brush the cat, or put him on the floor if you really want to be a rejecting mother. Otherwise, relax and enjoy the free mini-massage.”