Reason why cats massage you

Kneading as an adult with a kitten's mind
Kneading as an adult with a kitten’s mind. Infographic by MikeB at PoC. Click to see it larger if on a desktop or laptop.
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Strictly speaking it’s not massage!

There is one reason why domestic cats ‘massage’ their owner. And it is not really massaging as I am sure many of you know. The word ‘massage’ is misleading because although it looks a bit like massage it ain’t.

When and how it might happen

All cat owners have experienced the moment when they settle down to watch some tele and their cat joins them on their warm lap. They might purr and sometimes they might start ‘massaging’ their owner’s leg somewhere near the knee. This is “kneading” (no connection to the ‘knee’!).

Or you might describe it as trampling on your lap. The movements are rhythmical, slow and deliberate as if they are doing it slow motion. Your cat might become a little bit excited and their claws might dig into your knee. They prick your skin. You become irritated. You push your cat away. Or you might not if you understand what they’re doing. It is slightly cruel to push your cat away under the circumstances. Your cat will become upset by your rebuff.

During that last exciting phase before you pushed your cat away, she started to dribble over your dressing gown. You notice the saliva once your cat has jumped off. What is going on?

Stimulating milk (colostrum) flow

Well, this has been discussed a lot on the Internet so I would expect you to know. However, you will still find some answers on the Internet which are, in my opinion, misleading.

The best answer has always come from a person I have always looked up to on the topic of feline behaviour and the behaviour of other animals including the human-animal, Dr. Desmond Morris. He wrote the definitive book on cat behaviour a long time ago. It was published in 1986: CATWATCHING.

Authors have copied him ever since, the ones who know about him and his work. If you watch a kitten feeding at the breast of their mother you will observe the same actions in the kitten as you will see in your adult domestic cat on your knee ‘massaging’ you.

The gentle rhythmical movements simply serve to stimulate the flow of milk to the nipples. The dribbling on the part of the kitten is her anticipation of the receipt of the milk because it is so mouthwatering.

Dr. Desmond Morris also calls it “milk-treading”. It is conducted at one stroke every two seconds and at the same time the kitten or the adult cat purrs. We regard this as an adult cat behaving in an infantile way. It’s pretty cool that kittens can purr and drink milk at the same time. The mother my purr in response to signal all is well.

Cat’s owner becomes ‘kittens’ mother

It is an adult cat kept in a state of kitten mentality because they are provided for in every way by their caregiver or they should be in an appropriate home.

And the reason why kneading happens a lot when their owner sits down is because it is like a signal from the owner to their cat that they are lying down on their side ready to feed their kittens. At this point the adult cat switches into kitten mode and goes through the motions of stimulating breastmilk which is the massaging we’ve been talking about.

Inappropriate to stop it

The kitten will normally enjoy this moment tremendously as does the adult cat. This is why it is inappropriate to push your cat away even if you have been pricked by those sharp claws. A genuine feline mother would never do this.

And remember, that the adult cat kept in a state of kitten mentality thinks that the owner is their mother. They relate to them as cats. This behaviour is proof. A cat should never be pushed off when kneading because it is in effect a rejection by the mother of their kitten.

Pricking claws not an attack!

It can mislead cat owners who are unaware of this feline behaviour. When they are pricked by those pesky claws, they may think that their cat is attacking them when in effect it is a loving moment between kitten and mother. It should be respected! You will have to grin and bear it.

Why can cats tolerate mother’s colostrum but cannot tolerate cow’s milk?

Kitten development – comprehensive discussion

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