Why doesn’t my cat knead? Our Cat Behaviorist Explains

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  • What is kneading?

    If you’ve been around cats for a while, you’ve seen a kitty alternately pressing and lifting their front paws in perfect rhythm as if they’re doing some sort of ritualistic dance. Some people call it ‘making biscuits,’ and perhaps our felines know something we don’t.

    Bakers know that you can’t make a good loaf of bread without kneading it. The process allows the bread to form a stable structure with a tender interior and crusty exterior—the qualities of a good cat owner!

    Why do cats knead?

     

    Assuming that a cat kneads because it was weaned too early is false. According to a 2022 article published by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), evidence indicates that ‘nearly all cats knead, regardless of weaning age.” 

    Cats knead because it’s hardwired into their system. Kittens instinctively knead their mothers’ abdomen in order for the mammary glands to let down milk. Add purring, and it’s a sign for the mother to lie still so the kittens can feed. They often become relaxed enough that they fall asleep, and the practice is believed to leave such a positive memory that cats will continue the habit into adulthood.

    Other than providing comfort and relaxation, kneading is also great for stretching muscles, marking their territory, and making a nest. Cats in the wild have been observed kneading the ground in order to flatten any plants before they lie down.

    Kneading is also a means of communication for a cat to show affection to their human. It’s true that they only knead people they like, and the more they like you the harder they knead! If their nails are too long or sharp, however, it can be painful!

    Although you’re tempted to scream, hold it in. Although you want to throw them down, resist. The last thing you want to do is frighten or discourage your cat from extending their love to you.

    Solve the problem by keeping a blanket or quilt nearby, and when your kitty approaches, drop the blanket on your lap as a buffer. It will also help to keep your cat’s nails trimmed short. If it’s still painful, you may be able to encourage your cat to knead only on the blanket by placing it next to your lap.

    Why doesn’t my cat knead?  

    Cat personalities are as unique as people, and some cats just don’t like to knead. According to Janet Cutler, P.h.D., one of our Certified Cat Behaviorists at Cat-World.com, “Not all cats knead, or maybe you aren’t catching them doing it. If you’ve never seen your cat kneading, it’s possible it’s just not a behavior they particularly like. Cats may use other behaviors, such as purring, bunting (pushing their head up against you or another animal), and blinking slowly to show that they are relaxed and happy.

    Although cats that knead are more common than cats who don’t, it’s not a concern if yours is the latter. Cats display affection in different ways, and your kitty may simply have a different love language.

    Janet Cutler continues, “If your cat is not fully comfortable or relaxed, or if your cat is new to your home, it can take quite a while for them to get fully comfortable and relaxed. If your cat has been in your home for a while and there have been changes, such as renovations, new people or someone not living there anymore, or a new pet in the home, this could also temporarily affect their behavior.”

    Is everything okay if my cat doesn’t knead?

    Usually, a non-kneading cat is nothing to be concerned about. The reason may be something as simple as not having the right place or material to knead on. Janet Cutler explains it this way. “Your cat’s preferred surface may not be available. Cats seem to like to use soft surfaces to knead on and often will knead on your lap. Since young kittens first develop this behavior when they are nursing to help with milk production, it’s reasonable to think they might like similar surfaces. Giving your cat the opportunity to access different materials in different locations around your home may encourage them to begin kneading.”

    When to be concerned 

    The one reason to be concerned about your cat not kneading is if they are in pain. This is particularly true with declawed cats. Declawing is a surgical amputation of the end of each toe at the first joint. It’s the equivalent of cutting off the top section of bone (where the fingernail is) of each human finger. It is extremely painful and often results in residual chronic pain as well as behavioral issues.

    If pain is due to an injury, or your cat is sick, they will most likely exhibit other symptoms (lethargy, fatigue, vomiting, etc.), and a trip to the vet is required. Janet Cutler offers her advice: “If you notice that your cat suddenly stops kneading, or you’ve adopted an older cat that does not knead, it’s worth mentioning to your veterinarian. Cats could stop kneading if they are in pain or sick, so getting a physical exam could help to rule that out. Any surgery or injury to their legs or paws could also cause them to stop kneading.”

    What if my cat used to knead but has stopped?

    The possibilities include your cat having already marked you, a change in the environment, your cat feels intimidated, or even that it thinks you want to be left alone.

    If your cat kneaded you often and vigorously when you first brought them home, they may feel that you are sufficiently marked as belonging to them, and they no longer need to apply their scent to you. Note that cats in heat will also knead excessively.

    A new baby or pet in the home, as well as an unintentional scare, can send your cat into hiding. Janet Cutler explains it this way: “Has your cat ever accidentally used their claws when kneading and you might have jumped or yelped? If kneading has been (even accidentally) associated with punishment or something that scared your cat, it could be possible that they stop doing it for a period of time.”

    How can I get my cat to knead?

    Janet Cutler says: “Cats seem to knead when they are relaxed, and it often happens when they are on a soft surface and purring. One study looked at this behavior in shelter cats, and they didn’t observe any kneading when there weren’t soft surfaces available. Once a pillow was added, cats were more likely to knead – so providing soft surfaces somewhere where they like to rest may allow them to perform this behavior. Trying different types of pillows or fabrics, and leaving them in different areas, might help to encourage your cat to knead.”

    You can look forward to a mutually positive experience with a safe, comfortable place to knead, the right materials, and a relaxing atmosphere. Now, go take a nap!

    Interesting questions about cats kneading 

    Can declawed cats still knead?

    Declawed cats may have a problem. Toe amputation hinders their natural stretching habits because the bones, muscles, and tendons that allow a feline to extend and retract their claws are missing.

    Why does my cat only knead on me but not other people?

    Cats prefer to knead the person they are closest to. They also prefer certain fabrics and scents.  

    Why does my cat knead me when I’m sleeping? 

    Cats prefer people who are quiet and don’t move around a lot. When you’re sleeping, you’re the perfect target!

     

    Authors

    • Sue Murray owes her love of cats to two little domestic shorthairs named Scooter and Buttons who showed her that curtains are for climbing, litter is to scatter, nights are for running wildly through the house, and dogs are to hiss at. Sue has rescued or fostered more than 50 felines and enjoys writing about her experiences.

    • Janet Higginson Cutler, PhD, CAAB, is a Certified Cat Behaviorist. She earned her Phd at the University of Guelph, and runs her own cat and dog behavior consulting firm, Landmark Behaviour, in Canada.