Why Do Cats Rub Against You?

This is a familiar situation: you get home and right after opening your door, there goes your charming cat rubbing all over your legs. This is sometimes accompanied by the swishing of its tail around your ankles, too.

Cat lovers find this very endearing and sweet, which it really is. This is a form of social interaction wherein a cat shows its affection for its owner.

If you see cats doing the same thing to the furniture, protruded edges around the house or even to other pets, then, it is their own way of marking their territory. They’re marking you as theirs by leaving their scent on you.

Two lovely cats

All About Cat Rub

Below are some of the interpretation and factors contributing to the proverbial cat rub to make us fully understand our furballs better:

  • The Mark of Affection

Majority of cat owners and their friends or family have experienced the ritual of being greeted by cats with either bodily rubbing or head bunting. These greetings are seen as affection usually by their owners and other people which are heavily reinforced but the meaning is a bit more complicated than just simple displays of affection.

Head bunting or enthusiastic head butting is cats’ way of bonding with you and is a very intimate gesture. This is their way of saying how much they trust you. An even more intimate movement is when they expose their cheeks and rub them against your head with their eyes open.

When cats do head bunting, they are typically in a very relaxed state. You can see that their whiskers, pupils, and ears are relaxed according to Pam Johnson-Bennett, a cat behaviorist and book author. Whenever they refresh their scents on you, remember that they’re doing it because you’re part of the gang.

  • You are Family

Cats live in a world of smells that help establish where they are, who has been about, and the boundaries of their territory.

The one thing that distinguishes cat to human head bunting or rubbing from general object rubbing is the purpose behind it. Rubbing on objects in various locations lays out the message that this is where the cats live and it is their territory.

Allorubbing is another term used for bunting and is usually used when referring to bunting between cats. It is said to be a feline behavior similar to that of a human hug or handshake.

It can be a form of greeting when friendly cats do it to other animals. They only do this to other cats they are comfortable with and it should be interpreted as a positive gesture.

If you have more than one cat at home, you may be able to observe them head bunting each other. This may also be a sign of a hierarchy between them.

It is usually the older and bigger cat which does the bunting to spread its scent all over his loved ones. This may eventually lead to grooming behavior between the cats.

On the other hand, cats rubbing on humans is all about greeting and getting each other’s smells on each other to create a group smell.

It’s been well-documented that feral colonies of cats often have a ritual of head bunting and full-body rubbing against other cats of the same family or close companions.

This also extends to humans and as previously mentioned, it is a sign that the cat trusts you and you are a part of their group or family. By exchanging and mixing scents, it establishes friend from foe.

In particular, head bunting is a further display of trust, as pointed out, as it puts the cat in a slightly vulnerable position of exposing its face to attack. It’s safe to say that if a cat isn’t full body rubbing out head bunting you, then sadly, they do not trust you fully.

  • Specialised Glands

Scents are important communication tools in transferring and sending information about the individual, how recently they have been in the area, their age, and sex, along with other bits of information.

They also use scents to mark out the boundaries of their territories and the scent marking increases the closer they are to home. This then clearly labels where the cat lives and frequents most often to other individuals in the area.

Cats have several scent glands around their face and head, which help in the spread of their messages on and around objects or other individuals in the area.

Cats have 5 of 9 scent glands on their head and face alone. These are called the Pinna, Temporal, Cheek, Perioral and Submandibular glands. The other 4 are located on the paws, tail, base of the tail, and near the anus.

These glands all have a singular purpose; to help spread the individual scent within a territory and onto familiar objects or individuals.

They are also very conveniently on a location where the cat has very easy access to rubbing onto anything it wants without much effort.

  • Attention-Grabbing

Sometimes, though, cats do this to get your attention. They may want to be petted or groomed when they head bunt you, then expose their neck to you sideways.

Grooming makes a cat feel safe and secure. If your cat seems to do this often, they probably really like you.

Cats, like all animals, learn to express certain behaviors when they are reinforced by positive attention or getting what they want. They are also known for how persistent they can become in getting what they want through head bunting and body rubbing.

A majority of cat owners have experienced how treacherous it can be when getting up to the kitchen with an enthusiastic cat weaving between your legs in an attempt to get food or attention.

When rubbing and head bunting is in this context, it is to try and grab a person’s attention and get the thing they want. Usually, cats want either attention, play or food.

Rubbing against people is a learned behavior that is very much encouraged and then generalized by cats to be used to get what they want from their owners or other people.

People often see this behavior as affection or love. This may well be true and both the owner and the cat are rewarded with feeling good about the interactions. There have been studies to show that similar to dog and owner interaction, a small amount of oxytocin is released.

This hormone is commonly known as the “love hormone” which aids in positive social behavior and bonding. It is also present in aiding in mother and child bonding within humans.

How to Respond If Cats Rub Against You

The cats’ target when they are about to go bunting depends on the height of their object of affection. If they are by your legs, they usually use their forehead to rub on you and slowly knead their tails along.

If they suddenly jump close to wherever your face is, they’ll use their cheeks by rubbing them on yours towards their mouth. Objects that are lower than them tend to get a rub from their chin or throat.

You should be honored if your cats have chosen you to be part of their tribe and worthy of such intimacy. If you are strongly bonded, you may reciprocate it by softly head bunting them too.

Or you may scratch their chin or head or just offer your face to them. They will be contented and happy with just that.

Know that it is important that there be a strong bond between you two before they’ll receive your bunting comfortably. Some cats may not yet be comfortable with a response from you. Be patient and aware of your cat’s actions before holding out your hand.

You can make this bonding activity enjoyable with your cat by giving it cat treats whenever it engages in head bunting behavior. Another good thing would be to just lower yourself to the ground and communicate by talking; letting it know that it is in good hands.

cat rubbing against owners leg

Final Word

As shown above, the seemingly simple head bunting or body rubbing has a complex motivation and meaning behind its display. Your cat may be showing some very natural group smell-establishing behavior or trying to get your attention for food or play.

Next time your cat starts rubbing and head bunting away on you or a guest, watch a little more closely so you can start to see who your cat considers family or foe.

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