It is a bittersweet irony that love hurts – or at least the love of an ecstatic cat “making puddings” on your lap hurts.
You know the sort of thing: the soppy faced cat, quite possibly drooling with happiness, as she rhythmically pushes one front paw then the other into the skin of your thigh. The trouble is those claws can hurt, and the more lurrrrvving your cat is, the more painful it gets.
Why do cats knead?
This is a good question and, in all honesty, behaviorists have yet to get inside the mind of a cat to learn a definite answer. From our observations as pet parents, kneading is associated with pleasure, but what else do we know? Let’s take a look, on a strictly “knead to know” basis, at why cats knead.
Theory 1: The Milk Tread
The official name for that happy, treading motion is the “milk tread,” which we also know as “kneading dough” and “making biscuits.” It’s thought this action has its roots in suckling. The rhythmic push of the paws triggers a reflex in the mother cat that leads to a release of the hormone prolactin which, in turn, stimulates her to release milk into her nipples.
But less well-known is the fact that a kitten kneading her mother’s milk bar serves a secondary benefit of pushing the skin back from the nipple. This makes it easier for the kitten’s tiny mouth to latch onto the nipple while helping the milk flow more quickly (greedy little thing!).
The kitten then learns to associate the act of kneading with the pleasurable sensation of suckling, which also releases endorphins (natural morphine) which give kitty a natural high.
OK, with that in mind, who’s up for some kitten suckling trivia? Thought so! Here we go.
- At just three days old, 80% of newborn kittens prefer to suckle from a particular nipple on the mummy milk bar.
- The rear nipples yield the most milk (hence kittens that suckle at the rear tend to grow bigger more quickly).
- Young kittens suckle for around eight hours a day.
- Use it or lose it: If a nipple isn’t used for three days, the milk dries up.
Theory 2: Scent Marking
This second theory is about comforting smells. Cats use scent as a means of communication; they recognize who has passed by, whose territory it is, and what belongs to them.
Cats love the comforting smells of home, which is why it’s a wise vet who examines a fractious cat while letting them sit in the bottom half of their carrier. This is also why cats “bunt” (or head bump) against our shins because they’re busy marking us as their human.
So when it comes to kneading, the cat is transferring scent from the glands and sweat glands on the underside of her paw onto whatever it is she’s kneading. This makes it smell nice and familiar and marks it out as hers.
Some scent-related trivia:
- The olfactory part of a cat’s brain is larger than a human’s but smaller than a dog’s.
- A cat’s olfactory bulb contains 67 million cells, while a human’s contains 52 million.
Theory 3: Bedding Down
This theory goes back to the beginnings of cat evolution and them settling down in a bed of leaves by turning around and around. A combination of scraping the leaves into an appealing bed, and marking it with their scent, so they feel safe. This is perhaps the least convincing of all the arguments, but heck – who knows!
Asking why cats knead to need is similar to asking why cats purr: Because they’re happy. Maybe we need to take a lesson from cats and learn to let things be and live in the moment, without kneading to have an answer to everything.