A common behavior in cats is the motion of pushing their paws into something soft, alternating between the left and the right paw which is called “kneading”. It’s called this because they appear as if they were a baker kneading dough. I like to refer to it as “paw humping”. Some cats knead with their nails retracted, other cats fully extend them. But why do cats do this anyway?
Often accompanied by purring, we know that kneading is enjoyed by cats. It can be such a strong stress reliever that some cats begin to drool and become in a trance-like state. They will push into grass, soft blankets, pillows, sofas, even the laps of their owners just before laying down. Though it’s not completely understood why cats do this into adult age, it is observed as a very pleasing thing that all cats enjoy.
In the scientific sense of kneading, cats have scent glands in the pads of their paws. When kneading and even scratching, they leave behind a unique scent on the surface of the material which serves as a territorial marker. When a cat kneads in your lap they are not only getting comfortable but leaving their kitty scent all over you, claiming you as theirs. A female going into heat will do this more frequently and it is believed that she is leaving her scent behind to attract a male.
Kneading Is Debated
Kneading is a feline behavior that is very widely debated on. While it is instinctive, many people have different theories on why cats do this. As newborns and very young kittens, they knead their mother’s belly to stimulate milk flow to her nipples. There was a theory that cats taken from their mother too soon continue this behavior into adulthood, though this has been disproved through observation of various cats. Another theory is that it is a primal instinct they never unlearned which dates back centuries ago when they lived in the wild.