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Julia Albright, an associate professor in the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, recently addressed the question “Why do cats like to pat their paws on a soft blanket?” for The Conversation. Some cats shift their front paws back and forth just before settling down for a nap—a behavior sometimes referred to as making biscuits or kneading dough.

Albright_Julie_SACS_2014_turnScientists who study cat behavior call this distinctive paw action kneading and believe it to be a sign of a relaxed cat.

Albright explained how cats begin kneading and how the motion helps them.

Kneading in Kittens

Shortly following birth, a newborn kitten will begin to knead on its mother’s abdomen as a way of telling her it is hungry and ready for milk.

At the same time, the kitten usually purrs, creating a sound through rapid vibrations of certain throat muscles. Purring is a signal for attention.

Using these two behaviors, kittens are asking their moms—also known as queens—to remain still so they can continue suckling. Young kittens usually fall asleep while suckling.

Kittens stop drinking their mother’s milk by about two months of age. So why do cats continue to knead as adults?

Ready to Relax

Kneading seems to be more common in some cats than others. If a cat doesn’t knead, it could mean the cat is a little stressed—or it could just be that the cat doesn’t display relaxation or affection in that manner.

But many cats do continue kneading into adulthood. It’s pretty safe to assume that a cat that is kneading is feeling calm, content and ready to settle down, just like a kitten settling in to suckle and sleep.

Subtle Signals

Kneading may also be a form of communication between cats and their people.

Dogs are quite obvious in letting humans know they want something or like someone. For thousands of years, people have purposely bred dogs to be fun companions and to have useful behaviors such as herding, tracking, or guarding.

Cats and people have also lived together for thousands of years, and humans have appreciated cats’ amazing natural mousing skills. Only recently have people tried to breed cats—but mostly for their appearance, not for specific behaviors.

The result is that cats are a little more subtle than dogs in their ways of telling a person, “I like you.” Kneading is one of those clues.

UT is a member of The Conversation–an independent source for news articles and informed analysis written by the academic community and edited by journalists for the general public. Through our partnership, we seek to provide a better understanding of the important work of our faculty.

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CONTACT:

Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375, lowen8@utk.edu)