There's something mesmerizing about a cat rhythmically pushing back and forth with its paws, kneading some soft object. It looks like the feline is actually working dough, so much so that some veterinarians and cat owners refer to the motion as "making biscuits."

Not long after birth, kittens instinctively start pushing and prodding the area around their mother's nipples, realizing that it helps with the flow of milk from their mother's mammary glands. Noted zoologist Desmond Morris called this behavior "milk treading." It obviously makes sense for kittens to knead, but why do cats keep doing it long after they've become adults? Is there a purpose for the behavior or is it just a comforting holdover from kittenhood?

There's a theory that cats knead if they were taken from their mothers too early. But this theory has been debunked by most cat experts who point out that nearly all cats — no matter when they were weaned — still like to knead, Catster points out.

There's a good chance that kneading cats are just content, says veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker of Mercola's Healthy Pets. That's why kneading cats often purr and close their eyes while they're performing the repetitive, back-and-forth motion. Cats also may use the rhythmic behavior to calm themselves when they are nervous or stressed.

What about when your cat kneads you? When cats knead humans, some animal behaviorists believe they are marking their people with the sweat glands in their paws. The same could be said for any other thing a cat kneads, like a blanket or a bed. The cat is letting other cats know that these items belong to him and are part of his territory.

Unspayed female cats often knead right before going into heat. The motion may be a signal to male cats that she is ready to mate.

Kneading behaviors may also trace back to cats' ancient feline ancestors, which had to make comfortable resting spots in tall grass or leaves. In order to tamp down the grass, those early cats likely kneaded and prodded the foliage while also using their paws to poke around for anything dangerous lurking in the grass, reports PetMD.

If the kneading needs to stop

Sometimes a cat's kneading can become obsessive or it can be painful when her claws poke your lap.

If you want to discourage kneading, you might try gently pulling your cat into a lying position just as she starts the motion, suggests Becker. This might help settle her down and put her in a comfortable position for sleeping.

You might also want to try gently covering her paws with your hands so it's harder for her to knead. Or try distracting her with a toy or a treat when she starts to knead.

Just never punish your kitty for performing a natural behavior, says Becker.

Keep your kitty's nails trimmed or try nail guards if your pet likes to knead on your lap. You may also want to keep a thick folded towel or blanket nearby and use it to protect your lap so that your kitty can knead and your legs don't suffer because of all that affection.

If you've never been up close and personal with a kneading cat — or you just want a meditative moment — here's a video that gives you a peek:

Mary Jo DiLonardo Mary Jo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.