Jeannine Young, of Dunedin, asks :-
Since leaving our cat at a cattery for five days he has been "kneading" us at night. He walks around in circles, kneading and purring. No matter how many times we lift him off the bed he comes back and will carry on before going to the end of the bed to sleep. This is depriving us of sleep. What causes his kneading?
Mark Farnworth, an animal behaviourist at Massey University's Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, responded.
Firstly, if you think there is any medical reason for this behaviour or you are concerned for your cats health, please make sure you take him to a vet for a check up.
Kneading is a natural behaviour in cats that starts in early infancy. Kneading of the mother by kittens promotes her provision of milk and so, from a very early age this behaviour is associated with positive reward and possibly brings back positive memories/feelings/associations for the cat (rather like a child sucking their thumb). For many cats these behaviours are carried into adulthood, especially it seems in breeds such as the Burmese and Siamese. These "baby behaviours" may be more likely to continue into adulthood if the cat is weaned early (less than 4months).
The question to ask is "has our cat always kneaded". If the answer is yes then the transition from day to night and the persistence of the problem is likely associated with having been separated from you for five days. For most companion animals (pets) being separated from their family can be stressful. Having got you back your cat is probably escalating the behaviour you report to try and re-build a bond that it thinks has been damaged. The fact that the cat is using kneading (as opposed to say head rubbing) may be because previously you have encouraged this behaviour in other circumstances (e.g. the cat was kneading its blanket and you or the family made a big fuss of it because the behaviour was cute). Encouraging these behaviours positively often leads to an animal using those behaviours again to get the same positive response.
If the cat has spontaneously begun kneading (i.e. he didn't do it before) it is harder to explain why he has returned to this behaviour. It may be that the five day separation was extremely stressful and has caused a behavioural regression (like an adult sucking their thumb if under heavy stress). Was this his first time away? Did he go to a different cattery? Did anything unusual happen while he was there? A "yes" answer to any of these questions may explain things.