Is there anything more purrfect in this world than waking up to the sound of your kitty avidly scratching its paws on the blanky? Now, that's a challenge. This behavior, known as kneading, is common among all domesticated cats, and involves the feline pushing its front paws in and out of a (preferably) soft surface, alternating between left and right. Some cats even knead with their hind paws, resulting in a hilarious little dance (or is it some satanic ritual?).
Cats seem to do this in all sorts of situations, so what's up with that? Does your little munchkin think it's baking biscuits? The truth is that there isn't any satisfying scientific explanation for this adorable behavior, although there are some hypotheses.
According to the most oft-repeated explanation for feline kneading, the behavior is a leftover from kittenhood. Even before their eyes open, cats knead the area around the mother's teat in order to promote milk flow. Once they grow up, a soft surface brings back the memory of maternal warmth and security, triggering a conditioned reflex to knead with their little paws. During kneading, cats also purr, which tells us that the repetitive back and forth motion is actually very enjoyable for the feline.
Some say that cats knead throughout their lifetimes because they were taken from their mothers' teats too soon, and are now trying to replicate that happy, comforting moment in their early life. However, even cats that live in the same homes with their mums all their lives knead as well.
Making Kitty's bed
Other hypotheses for kneading suggest that it's an inherited behavior carried over from ancient felines or that it's actually a way for the cat to make a bed or stake a claim to an area -- a soft surface is akin to tramping down grass or foliage, according to this explanation. Kneading may also be a cat's own way to do yoga, enabling her to stretch and unwind after a nap, in preparation for the next round of napping of course.
Besides making themselves very comfortable, just as people adjust pillows or blankets at bedtime, cats may knead in other situations as well. For instance, unspayed cats have been observed kneading often just before going into heat, which may perhaps be a sign that she's eager to mate. Kneading can also be a form of territorial marking. On your little devil's paws, there are scent glands, which release scents when the feline is kneading. The odor is discernable by other cats or pets but is imperceptible to the human nose.
Feline moment of affection -- don't ruin it!
Kneading may also signal that your cat loves you. So, even though it might hurt when she unsheathes her claws and scratches your chest, try not to push her away. Instead, anticipate the moment and pull the blanket over you or place a towel on your lap so your beloved feline won't hurt you. It's one of the rare moments that she feels relaxed and loved in her life (besides awkwardly sitting inside boxes), so take heed and let Kitty knead away.