Why do cats knead? Experts explain the complex science of "making biscuits"
“I personally let my cats knead to their heart's content.”
It’s a lazy Saturday afternoon, and you’re lounging on the couch. Suddenly, you feel a gentle push on your stomach. It’s your cat pressing its paws in and out, rhythmically. You understand what’s going on: it’s biscuit time.
Known by cat owners and popularized online (#catsmakingbiscuits is a vibrant corner of TikTok), this kneading behavior may seem odd at first. While your cat may look like a little baker preparing dough, the actual purpose of this behavior isn’t obvious.
However, experts say kneading has deep roots in feline evolutionary behavior. Cats may knead for any number of reasons — and in their own special way.
“The style of ‘making biscuits’ can vary cat to cat, from just the front feet to all four feet, from claws out or not,” Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, tells Inverse.
What is cat kneading?
“Kneading in cats is the rhythmic pushing of the cat's paws towards and away from an intended object,” Pankratz explains.
It’s also often referred to as “making biscuits,” due to the similar way that breadmakers rhythmically knead dough. You’ll often see cats making biscuits on common household objects, linens and blankets, and even your own clothing.
Some cats will push their claws out while kneading, while others do not.
Why do cats knead?
Kneading is a deep-seated evolutionary response between mother and kitten.
“Kneading, or ‘making biscuits’ is very similar to the movements that kittens make when they are nursing on their mother,” Mikel Delgado, a cat expert at Feline Minds, tells Inverse.
Pankratz calls kneading a “juvenile behavior” that serves as a way for kittens to communicate; they knead on their mother’s belly to “stimulate milk production.”
But many cats carry this behavior into adulthood, kneading on soft objects like pillows.
Delgado speculates that as cats became domesticated, humans began spaying and neutering them more, causing our felines to “retain some of these behaviors that help them survive when they are young.”
Pankratz says adult cats likely knead because they associate it with the same comfort they received when they were nursing their mother as kittens.
Meanwhile, other cats may knead for more simple, relatable reasons, just like how humans stretch our limbs when we’re tired. “The motion of kneading, especially around nap time, can help stretch those muscles,” Pankratz says.
Felines also make biscuits to mark their scent on objects, much like their ancestors would have done in the wild.
“As territorial creatures, this scent communicates their presence with other cats and provides a familiar scent to their territory,” Pankratz says.
Finally, before going into heat, female cats may signal this by lying on their side and kneading the air.
What does it mean when your cat kneads on you?
If your cat is kneading, it is likely content.
A 2018 study describes kneading as a “communicatory behavior” that deposits pheromones — chemicals that signal to and trigger responses in other cats — onto objects.
“Kneading is a normal feline behavior,” Delgado says. Kneading, she explains, is a “pleasurable experience” for cats.
“We see that adult cats knead when they are relaxed and happy or when they are on a very soft, inviting blanket,” Delgado says.
Pankratz adds: “This behavior is a calming signal often expressed when the cat feels happy and comfortable.”
Is cat kneading normal behavior?
It’s completely normal and instinctual for a cat to knead objects, experts say. Ultimately, Delgado says “there's no reason to worry about it” as kneading is a behavior that suggests cats are feeling “safe and happy.”
The opposite is also true: Pankratz adds that while many cats knead as kittens, not all cats continue kneading into adulthood. So, if your feline doesn’t knead that much — or at all — that’s still completely fine.
In general, cats making biscuits shouldn’t be a problem, though it might pose more of an issue if your cat is directly kneading onto your body. Even so, you shouldn’t punish your cats for making biscuits.
“It is important not to punish — yell, scold, spank, squirt bottle, etcetera — your cat for this behavior,” Pankratz says, stressing that cats aren’t kneading for “malicious reasons.”
But you may want to watch out for where your cat is kneading: Some research suggests kneading is helpful for cats to maintain their claws and paws.
What should I do if my cat is kneading on me?
Many feline owners are perfectly content to let their cat knead to their heart’s desire, even on their own bodies or clothes. However, you also don’t want to get accidentally scratched in the process.
“Some owners might find this behavior unpleasant if a cat does extend their claws during this behavior and inadvertently hurts the person,” Pankratz says.
Meanwhile, a 2017 study suggests cat kneading can potentially transmit infections to owners — even when they’re clothed. It describes a woman who developed “trauma-induced cutaneous punctures from her cat’s paws while it was kneading on her clothes-covered abdomen.” Yikes.
Even if your cat isn’t harming you, they might knead your favorite fabrics, causing them to “pill or unravel,” Pankratz says.
Luckily, there are some easy ways to remedy this potential problem. Pankratz offers four tips for concerned pet owners:
- “Think about when and where this behavior occurs.” For example, does your feline typically knead when you’re petting your cat on the couch — or when they have access to a specific object, like a blanket?
- “Think about how you could proactively prevent this behavior from occurring.” Trimming your cat’s nails regularly or using plastic nail guards can prevent injury to yourself or household objects while your cat is making biscuits. Consider placing your special blankets in a safe place when you’re not using them.
- “Think about what you can ‘arm’ yourself with to redirect this behavior”: Place thick, soft blankets or pillows to serve as a “protective barrier” between yourself and your feline or try redirecting their kneading to another strategically placed object. You can also redirect their attention to play with a toy or eat a treat.
- Consider “alternatives to punishment” such as calmly removing yourself — or another object your cat is kneading — out of its reach.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable with your cat making biscuits on your lap, Delgado suggests standing up slowly and letting your cat “naturally fall off your lap.”
But, ultimately, kneading is a mostly harmless feline response, and it’s best to let cats express themselves.
“I personally let my cats knead to their heart's content because it's a loving, relaxed behavior,” Delgado says.