Why Do Cats Knead Or Massage Their Human Owners, Pillows, Blankets…Everything!?

Cats are curious creatures that are often misunderstood by their pet parents. For example, one specific activity brings immeasurable joy to all felines, but not so much to their owners. We’re talking about kneading, or “massaging” as some diplomatically call it.

Cats can knead on anything – furniture, pillows, blankets,  and humans. You’ve probably seen it all. Unfortunately, this often results in unpleasant scratch marks. Some people call this activity “clawing” or “needling.”

A cat’s soft kneading motions always involve the front paws, but some cats will use all four.

When felines knead, you can often see the sheer pleasure they get – the way they luxuriously stretch and purr loudly are hints that this is the best thing ever. Some cats seem to enjoy this activity even more than playing with their favorite cat toys.

Of course, if your arm is the object of their affections, you may have a different view of the behavior.

Cats can knead on any type of soft surface, including:

  • Sheets and blankets
  • Pillows
  • Beds or couches
  • Toys
  • Clothes
  • Their owners

Below, we’ll cover the reasons why cats knead their pet parents, but first, we’ll focus on why they’re doing it on other surfaces.

Why Do Cats Knead On A Surface?

Reminiscing About The Old Days From Kittenhood

Felines start kneading when they’re newborn kittens.

The pressing of their paws to both sides of their moms’ nipples stimulates milk flow. How much the mother cat minds is debatable, but at any rate, it’s a basic, inborn instinct, which they develop from day one.

Some older felines probably do it simply out of habit. So it’s understandable for them to perceive it as something natural even as they grow older. They may remember how soft, warm, and comforting their moms’ bellies used to feel.

Don’t judge your furry pal if it happens to knead out of habit. After all, the popular saying “old habits die hard” is just as easily applicable to felines.

Seeking Comfort

Some cats knead when they’re stressed out.

Felines can experience emotions just like we can. When you’re sad, you may reach for ice cream. When your cat is anxious, depressed, or frustrated, it may reach for a comforting surface to knead and help it calm down.

If you realize your cat is kneading out of distress, you should try to provide comfort by speaking in a soft, low voice and gently petting her. If the kneading is constant, you might want to seek a vet’s advice as your kitty could be trying to deal with a case of chronic anxiety.

Preparing The Surface For A Nap

Another reason cats knead is similar to your own. Think about how you adjust your blankets before you go to sleep. Your fluffy pal’s kneading on a soft fabric may have the same purpose.

Cats sleep a lot, and they can do it in a variety of positions. They can make a sleeping spot out of anything – from the uncomfortable, hard countertop to your favorite pillow.

This, however, doesn’t mean that they aren’t picky. In fact, felines are notable for their whimsical and capricious behaviors. So if you’ve spotted your kitty kneading right before it starts snoozing, then it was simply trying to prepare the surface for its daily nap.

Why Do Cats Knead Or “Massage” Their Owners?

As much as we love our cats, the experience of having them knead on our bare skin is less than pleasant, especially if their claws are extended. As if dealing with cat hair isn’t difficult enough, having our pets use us as a scratching post is an absolute nightmare!

Nevertheless, when a kitty kneads on its pet parent, it’s actually flattering.

It means that your pet trusts you, loves you, and is feeling safe in your presence. Here are the basic factors that make cats knead on their owners.

Demanding Attention

Some feline breeds, like the Oriental Shorthair, love being the center of attention. Others are quite shy and don’t express their need for social interaction often.

Playing sessions, tasty treats, pleas for more food or petting – cats want it all. If you haven’t paid attention to your fluffy pal for a while and it starts kneading on you all of a sudden, it’s probably trying to get you to spend some bonding time with it.

Confusing Humans With Their Feline Moms

This particular occurrence is a factor in newborn kittens only. When they’ve been weaned prematurely, adopted, or taken from their feline moms at an early age, kittens may confuse their humans with actual cats.

Thus, it’s common for a newborn to start kneading on you as you’re feeding it with a syringe or a dropper. It might also start doing it while you’re hugging it because it’s mistaking your warm and soft skin with its biological mother’s body.

Marking Their Territory

Even the most amicable or laidback cat can start acting out territorially. Kneading is one of the ways felines scent-mark what’s theirs.

They have scent glands in numerous places all over their bodies, including their paws. So, when they’re pressing them continuously onto something, they’re marking it as their own. It’s basically your beloved kitty’s way of saying that you’re his/ her special human.

Expressing Affection

Your kitty doesn’t necessarily need to purr in order to show you that it’s feeling delighted in your company. Feline devotion can be expressed in a variety of ways, and kneading is one of them.

While it’s kneading on your arm or leg, your fluffy pet might be recalling happy memories of its kittenhood. Even if this is uncomfortable for you, your kitty doesn’t intend to inflict any pain. In fact, since the action is typically relaxed and happy, it’s showing you how much the cat enjoys whatever object its paws (and claws) are plying – including you!

Regardless of how painful it may be, don’t punish your pet for doing it. It’s actually a good thing. It’s a natural, inborn activity, locked within every kitten’s instincts. When you can’t handle it, just encourage your pet to do it somewhere else or get a warm towel and gently place it right underneath its paws.

Emily Parker

Emily Parker is the Content Manager at Catological. She's passionate about helping cat parents love their cats better by providing the best information and recommendations about everything you'll need to know about your cat, from kitten to senior years. She believes natural, biologically-appropriate products are best...why wouldn't you provide the best for a member of your family?!