You are sitting comfortably on the sofa watching TV or reading a book when your cat jumps up on to your lap to join you. He’s soft and purring and clearly in the mood for affection, but instead of sitting down comfortably he starts rhythmically treading up and down with his front paws, almost like he is trying to dig a hole in your lap. At first you find it quite interesting to watch but after several minutes you start to feel a certain amount of discomfort as his claws dig little holes through your clothing and he doesn’t seem to want to settle. If you are a cat owner I am pretty sure you will be able to relate to this scene.
The question is – what on earth is it all about and why does your cat do it?
The motion is called kneading. It starts when a cat is a very young kitten feeding from his mother. The kitten kneads against the soft surface of his mother’s breast to stimulate milk production. For the rest of his life your cat will associate the motion of kneading a soft surface as a pleasurable and rewarding experience. Some animal behaviour experts believe cats who were weaned too soon as kittens show more of a tendency to knead, whereas others think only those who were weaned too late knead more. I am not sure who is right here – but one thing I do know is that kneading is always a sign of affection, and your cat should certainly never be punished for doing it.
Another theory as to why cats knead relates back to the behaviour of their wild ancestors, who liked to lay down on soft comfortable surfaces in just the same way as our domestic cats do. Because all cats are territorial creatures, the wild cats would use the scent glands in their paws to mark out their territory by kneading on it prior to lying down. Your cat could well be doing the same.
Some cats knead with their claws out which can be pretty painful for you, whereas others keep their claws tucked away, but if you try to stop your cat from kneading, you are in effect spurning his affection. A simple remedy is to place a soft cushion, towel or blanket on your knee so your cat can still tread away to his heart’s content without hurting you. If the cat is turned to face you whilst he is kneading on your knee another trick that I have found to be successful (90% of the time!) is to stroke the cat from his head down his back then gently push down on his back to encourage him to give his legs a rest and lay down.
One point to remember is that the cat’s kneading doesn’t go on for the entire time he is sat on your lap – it’s usually only for a minute or two. Once he has finished making himself a little bed, he will curl up contentedly on your lap and just enjoy being close to you.
It isn’t just your knee that takes a pounding from your cat’s kneading either. It is pretty much any soft surface where your cat decides to make himself comfortable. In my lounge I have a soft sheepskin rug in front of my fire, which is a favourite sleeping place for my cat Cleopatra, especially in the winter. Every time I take the rug outside to get the dust off it I see lots of little shredded pieces of wool coming away from the rug in the very places where Cleopatra has kneaded prior to settling down for a snooze.
A former work colleague of mine recently adopted her daughter’s cat after her daughter moved away. “I love having the cat around “she told me, “but how on earth can I stop him from treading up and down when he sits on my knee?” My advice to her was to view the cat’s kneading as a compliment rather than an annoyance – and to appreciate the fact that by kneading her, the cat was in fact telling her how much he liked her.