This behaviour is a throwback to kittenhood. When nursing from their mother, kittens will knead at her belly, which is believed to help stimulate her milk flow and tell her that her kittens are happy and content.
When a kitten or cat kneads, they will push rhythmically in and out with alternating paws (kneading is also referred to as making biscuits or milk treading for this very reason). They often appear to be in a trance-like state, with eyes closed, sometimes drooling and purring. They really seem to be enjoying the moment and I definitely view kneading as a sign of a contented cat.
In many cats, this kneading behaviour continues into adulthood. Cats can often be found kneading a soft or furry blanket and some will even knead on humans when they are being petted. I have a cat who will also lie on his side and knead into thin air.
So why do adult cats knead?
Some people believe that adult cats knead if they were taken away from their mother too early. This hasn’t actually been proven to be the case, though. I’m not convinced that is always the case, our cat Levi (shown in the video) is a chronic kneader and left his mother at 12 weeks of age.
Another theory is that kneading is a throwback to the wild days when a cat would knead down the soft grass before making a bed to sleep, it is theorised this was to squash down grass and check the ground for predators such as snakes.
Also, the paws also contain scent glands and kneading transferrers the cat’s scent onto the object being kneaded, therefore claiming it as his.
Entire female cats (queens) often knead immediately before they go into heat.
We will never be 100% sure of the reason cats knead but whatever the reason, they do seem to enjoy it and it doesn’t cause any harm. If your cat likes to knead you, take it as a compliment, he likes you a lot. There is no reason to stop it unless they are using you as a human pin cushion. In which case, you may either choose to avoid this happening, place a blanket between you and your cat’s paws or keep the claws regularly trimmed.