You have your cat on your lap and he is purring with his paws on your thigh. He is rubbing on you with his motor running and his toes are flexing and extending in a slow repetition. This opening and closing of his toes in a rhythmic way is called kneading. It is very relaxing and makes you feel good. That’s because somehow you know what kneading signifies. But why do cats really do this?
This behavior is simpler than many of the things ours cats do. Kneading seems to come from kittenhood when the motion of kittens’ tiny paws would stimulate the mother cat’s mammary glands to release the milk for the kittens to nurse.
Mammals have different mechanisms for “milk let down” which is caused by a release of the hormone oxytocin in the mother’s body. Oxytocin makes the glands contract and the milk release. Dairy farmers are well aware of “milk let down”. They try to maximize everything that might stimulate the cow’s oxytocin, so they can make the greatest milk production to sell. Some believe that farmers have been able to selectively breed dairy cows that do not require an actual touch stimulus to let down milk, but cats are not production animals and still depend on the touch of their kittens to help the milk flow. Kneading is a survival skill to baby kittens who depend on their mother’s milk exclusively for many weeks.
Our cats grow into adults in our homes and no longer depend on their moms, but their basic brains still remember. In a cuddling situation, your cat feels safe and warm and his brain recalls his first experiences that were safe and warm. His paws respond to the memory by starting to knead. If you do not keep claws trimmed and blunt, kneading can be uncomfortable for you, but your cat does not mean to hurt you.
Kneading does not seem to be an actual reflex, which is a response that occurs to a stimulus without having to involve the brain. For example, the “knee-jerk response” occurs so fast you don’t even have time to think about it. Kneading, unlike a reflex, is a response that requires your cat’s brain and is a truly behavioral reaction.
The rhythmic opening and closing of the toes is a very natural response to feeling safe, warm, and content. We love our cats and want them to be all of these things, so when our cat is kneading, it tells us that we are doing something right!
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