The (very cute) science of why cats knead
Spoiler: it's all your fault.
As several million videos on the internet will attest, cats are weird. Very very weird. So, particularly if you’re the owner of a furry feline, chances are you’ve had serious questions about some of their behaviour. Questions such as ‘why do cats knead?’.
The answer: despite what you may have heard, scientists aren’t completely sure at the moment.
“Kneading is a really interesting behaviour in that it hasn’t been researched in-depth scientifically,” says Dr Lauren Finka, cat behavioural expert from Cats Protection. “There could be a lot we don’t know regarding its function.”
However, despite this, there are several key theories to why cats knead. Firstly, it’s thought the behaviour could simply be another way for them to spread their scent, creating comforting familiarity.
“There are quite a lot of scent glands around cat’s paws, so it may be that they knead us to deposit their scent,” says Finka.
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There is another commonly cited (and downright intriguing) theory about why your moggy claws your lap. It’s thought that kneading mirrors the movement kittens use to stimulate the flow of milk from their mother’s mammary glands. This happy habit may be mimicked in later life in the form of kneading.
However, this appears only to be the case for domestic cats. It turns out that by placing them in human care, feline behaviour is drastically altered.
“Kneading. Meowing. Purring. They’re all things that humans unknowingly encourage cats to maintain in their repertoire,” explains Finka.
“Free-living domestic cats that aren’t socialised towards humans don’t tend to perform these behaviours when they leave the nest. To them, those behaviours are something that they mostly only do when they’re around their littermates and their mother – not as independent adult cats.”
Domestic cats, however, are very different. “They take these social behaviours into adulthood because they’re in these very social situations throughout their whole lifetime,” adds Finka.
“As humans, we’ve actually maintained these kitten-like features in our cats. This extended kittenhood even has a name: neoteny.”
Neoteny – essentially adult animals retaining behaviours and features they had when juveniles – isn't just common in cats: domesticated dogs have been selectively bred to have juvenile physical traits (think the short snouts and wide eyes).
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Although all this sounds like humans are forcibly infantilising our cats, feline neoteny (also known as juvenilisation) isn’t necessarily harmful to them – particularly when it comes to kneading.
“Yes, we're expecting cats to be a lot more social than they’re necessarily equipped to be. But behaviours like kneading are likely beneficial for the cat to perform – it might be soothing for them and could help them to indicate contentment during human interactions. So, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all,” says Finka.
Is it bad if a cat doesn’t knead?
Rest assured: if your cat doesn’t knead you, it’s not because they hate you. Well, not necessarily, anyway.
According to Finka, there are simply a lot of differences between individual cats – the need to knead (or absence of) doesn’t necessarily indicate how they feel about you, although cats with early positive experiences with humans may be more likely to do this.
“I think there's just a lot of variability between cats, and how they choose to express themselves,” says Finka. “For instance, some friendly cats will be very vocal and meow a lot while others may hardly meow at all.
“In most cases, kneading could be a good indicator that the cat is probably relaxed and comfortable. But it's not necessarily a cause for concern if you don’t see that.”
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Thomas is Digital editor at BBC Science Focus. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology, health and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards. Also working in academia, Thomas has lectured on the topic of journalism to undergraduate and postgraduate students at The University of Sheffield.
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