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Why does my cat knead my lap with its front paws?:

Sometimes we call it kneading, or trampling, or pitty-patting, but it means the same thing: our cat jumps on our lap and starts pressing down first with one front paw and then with the other. This kneading is rhythmic, slow and deliberate, accompanied by purring. After a while, our cat gets really into this and begins to bring the claws into the act. Ouch! Now we shoo the cat away. Our cat walks off upset by this sudden rebuff. What's going on here?

To understand what our cat is doing, we have to understand what kittens do when they nurse. When a kitten suckles, it will knead its mother's stomach with its tiny paws to stimulate the milk flow. Sometimes kittens will salivate a little in anticipation (and sometimes adult cats will do a little drooling while they knead us). This "milk-kneading" (as it is called) is done at a slow pace of about 1 stroke every 2 seconds. And the little kitten purrs loudly while kneading.

What appears to happen when we sit down is that we look relaxed to our cat, signaling to him or her to hop up and start the milk-kneading activity. Our cat reverts to kittenhood and happily starts treading.

When we suddenly make our cat get off our lap in the middle of this activity, our cat is surprised and disconcerted because the mother cat didn't push her kittens away like that!

Next time you sit down and your cat looks eager to hop in your lap, have a towel or throw ready to put over your legs. That way your cat can really enjoy a session of kneading, feel happy and content to be with you, and you don't have to worry about the claw pricks.

Source: Catwatching, by Desmond Morris, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1986, pp. 30-32.