What it means when cats knead with their paws

Scientists studying cat behavior call this distinctive paw action “kneading,” which they believe is a sign of a relaxed cat. Knead my own cats before they nap near me. As they knead, they purr – one becomes so relaxed that he sometimes drools. Kneading is usually done around a favorite person. As a veterinarian, I think it’s important to recognize the little moments when your cat tells you that she is happy to be around you. At the same time, the kitten is usually purring, a sound made by rapid vibrations of certain neck muscles. Purring is a signal for attention.

With these two behaviors, kittens ask their mothers, also known as queens, to remain silent so they can continue to nurse. Young kittens usually fall asleep while suckling.

Kittens stop drinking breast milk around two months of age. Why do cats keep kneading as adults?

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Ready to relax

Kneading seems to be more common in some cats than others. If your cat isn’t kneading, it could mean she’s a little stressed – or it could simply be that your cat isn’t showing any relaxation or affection in that way.

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

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You may already know that when your cat puffs up or bumps its head and rubs its cheek, head, and body against your leg or an object near you, it is in those areas that it gives off its scent. Cats also have scent glands between their toes, leading some people to suspect that cats also give a familiar, soothing scent to their sleeping area when kneaded.

Don’t bother looking for these glands in your own cat. They are not easily visible.

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Subtle signals

Kneading can also be a form of communication between cats and their humans.

If you’ve been around dogs, you know that most people obviously know they want something or like someone. For thousands of years, humans have purposely bred dogs to be fun companions and display useful behaviors such as herding, tracking, or guarding.READ MORE: Don’t blame cats for wildlife destruction – shaky logic leads to moral panic

Cats and humans have also lived together for thousands of years – and humans have come to appreciate their amazing natural mouse abilities. Only recently have humans tried to breed cats, but mostly for their looks, not for certain behaviors.

The result is that cats are a little more subtle than dogs in their way of saying, “I like you” to a person. Kneading is one of those pointers.

Dr. Julia Albright is an Associate Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee.