Cat behavior often seems mystifying to us humans, but a lot of that stems from treating cats as if they were dogs. Cats will only seem to be complete enigmas if we don't learn to speak their language. For example, when your favorite feline has a habit of rubbing around your legs when you return home, even if you have been gone only for a short time, she's not trying to trip you. When she head-butts your face when you're trying to sleep, she's not implementing a strategy of sleep deprivation torture. Really, all this rubbing and purring and head-butting is her way of marking you to let you know that you are loved and appreciated. Oh, and possibly that she's hungry. And maybe that she owns you. It is all part of the way that cats communicate as they spread their scent around. Here, some major reasons why cats rub against you:
They Are Establishing Markers
Cats have a sense of smell that is about 200 times more sensitive than a human's. They also have an organ in the roof of their mouth that senses pheromones. Cats have many scent glands including on the tail, paws, forehead, cheeks, chin and lips. When your cat rubs these scent glands against a surface, they release pheromones that are unique and let other cats know they have been there and left their calling card. In the same way that dogs sniff each other's nether regions, cats bump heads with each other or with their humans to learn about where they've been, who they've interacted with, and to reestablish their own scent markers. When cats (and humans) live together, they become a communal group and begin to share a scent.
They Want to Mark Us to Express Affection and Ownership
The pheromones secreted by face glands have a calming effect on cats and are associated with being affectionate and friendly. Cats tend to mark both people and other cats by head butting, known as "bunting." This behavior is first displayed between a mother and her kittens, and is considered a loving gestures. When a cat leaves her scent with her cheeks, it is a sign she is calm and open to affection. Cats will often use the scent glands on the lips and chin to mark furniture and other objects. When we pat and stroke them when they nuzzle us, we are exchanging scents. Swapping scents this way is more relaxing for the cat than, say, spraying, which is a territorial and aggressive act. Scent marking is how a cat lets us know they own us.
Rubbing Up Against Someone Can Indicate Need
As well as indicating ownership and territory, the face rubbing also communicates urgency. For example, when your cat is hungry, she's rubbing all over your legs to let you know it's her feeding time. She may rub both you and the place where the food is kept to make it clear that she is ready to be fed. Some cats also will rub against you when the litter box needs cleaning. Of course, sometimes your cat just wants some attention. If she head-butts and then offers her neck sideways with her head tucked down, she would like to be scratched on her neck and head now, please.
- PetPlace.com: Why Do Cats Rub Up Against Things?
- Cat Health: Why Do Our Cats Rub Their Faces On Us
- Feline Docs: Butting Heads With Your Cats
- Vetstreet: Why Does My Cat… Rub His Face on Everything?
- Cat Behavior: Why Do Cats Rub Against You?
- What Cats Really Mean When They Purr, Meow or Rub Against You
- Johns Hopkins University: It's All Mine! Cat Marking, Explained
- The Humane Society of the United States: Cat Chat -- Understanding Feline Language
- The Humane Society of the United States: What To Do If Your Cat Is Marking Territory
- Best Friends Pet Care: Cat Behaviour -- Marking Their Territory