Cats have many unique and amusing behavioral traits, and kneading is just one of them. Kneading is the motion cats make by rhythmically alternating their paws, pushing in and out against a pliable, soft object (such as a lap). Not all cats knead in the same way; some never push out their claws at all, and some even use all four paws. For example, some cats knead just before they’re about to take a nap. Whatever reason your cat kneads, the one thing all these ideas have in common is that kneading is natural, instinctual, and common cat behavior.
While not all cats knead, it is a common behavior for young and adult felines alike, so it’s likely your cat does it. There are a few different ideas out there as to why. Some cats knead (and purr contentedly) when they’re being petted, but they may also do it for no clear reason. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular theories:
Cats start to knead as kittens, before they’re even able to get around on their own, while nursing from their mother. A nursing kitten instinctually kneads to help stimulate the mother’s milk production. Why do they continue to knead past nursing age? Even though kneading a soft surface doesn’t yield milk, adult cats forever associate the motion of kneading with the rewarding comfort of nursing.
If your cat is curled up and kneading your lap while you’re petting him, he’s returning the affection and telling you he loves you right back. Unfortunately, this can be quite painful, since the happier he is, the harder he’ll dig in with his sharp nails. Try placing a thick, soft barrier between the cat and your lap, or gently place him on his back and pet his belly if it gets too intense. However, do not punish your cat for this behavior — he doesn’t relaize it hurts. To better ensure the comfort of both you and your cat, make a habit of keeping his nails trimmed, or invest in nail guards to cover your cat’s nails.
Female cats have an additional reason for kneading: they’re known to knead their paws just before going into estrus — commonly known as “going into heat.” Kneading acts as a display to male cats that she wants and is able to mate.