By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
Many cats regularly make kneading motions (also referred to as paddling) with their paws, especially when they’re sitting on a person’s lap. This involves pressing one paw down and then the other in an alternating motion, spreading the toes with each push. Some people jokingly refer to this activity as “making bread” because it resembles kneading a batch of dough.
Kittens knead when they’re nursing to stimulate milk flow. Because people are much larger and provide food and care for their cats, domestic cats are in some ways permanent kittens and humans their surrogate parents. When cats snuggle up with a warm person they love, they can relive the enjoyment and contentment of being a kitten by engaging in kneading, often purring at the same time.
Wild cats also use a kneading motion when softening material to make a nest, and some cats will knead soft fabrics in anticipation of lying down to sleep. Kneading or paddling is perfectly natural, and is not a sign of anxiety or psychological problems.
Some people understandably dislike kneading if the cat doesn’t keep her claws fully sheathed. Trimming the tips of the claws or using a nail cap product for cats such as Soft Paws can prevent accidental scratches.
Reference: Tabor, R. (2005). 100 Ways to Understand Your Cat. Cincinnati, OH: David & Charles.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.