Kneading, push paws or making bread are all terms used to describe this quirky cat behavior. There is a common misconception that kneading cats were taken from their mothers too early but that theory's been debunked. Cats start kneading when they're just young kittens. The pressing motion they do with their paws is something they use before even able to open their eyes. They use it on their mother to stimulate the flow of milk for feeding. This feeling of reward is something that's ingrained in cats for their entire lives, and it's a warm and comforting feeling to them. Even as adult cats, this behavior often results in a feeling of contentment and security. Some cats like to curl up on their favorite person's lap to enjoy attention while kneading and purring.
Marking Their Territory
One common theory is that cats knead certain people or soft, pliable objects to claim their territory. Cats' paws contain scent glands so, by repeatedly pressing their paws, they're telling other animals to go away and that this is their spot. It's also a sign that they're very comfortable with you and want to share the love. Some female cats also do this when in heat to signal potential mates.
Preparing the Bed
The act of kneading their paws on a blanket, pillows, clothing, bedding or other pliable objects can be traced back to cats' ancestral outdoor habitat. When they live outside, cats will knead leaves and grass to create a comfortable bed for napping or giving birth. They also use this technique to seek out rodents or insects hiding in the foliage. Kneading also helps cats stretch out their shoulders and legs after a long day of hunting, which is relaxing and comforting. This might also explain why cats often fall asleep after kneading.
Making Kneading More Comfortable
Anyone's who's experienced a cat kneading on their lap has likely felt sharp claws at some point. Some cats press hard enough to cause pain but shouldn't be punished for this natural, common behavior. Try gently nudging the cat off your lap or roll it over onto its side or back. If this doesn't work, try placing a soft, thick blanket or other fabric between your lap and the cat so it has a place to press its paws without causing pain. Not all cats use their claws when kneading but it's best to take precautions. If your cat does use its claws, keep them trimmed or try soft claw covers to prevent any damage to objects or accidental injury from their claws.
If you want to completely discourage a cat's kneading, try distracting the cat with treats or enticing it with toys. You can also cover its hands or paws, which might distract and stop the cat from beginning the behavior. Remember that this is an instinctive behavior that cats use to calm themselves when they're stressed or nervous so harsh reprimands won't help.