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Why Do Cats Rub Against Things?

One of your cat’s most interesting behaviors is when it headbutts your leg, slinks between your legs when you come home, and meows up at you. You’ve probably heard that the reason for this is that your cat is claiming ownership of you. But the real reasons your cat does this are far more interesting than just that.

Why do cats rub against things? Cats rub themselves against things to claim ownership of space and things, show love, and get attention. Cats produce pheromones in several places in their bodies, including their faces and behinds; when they rub against things, they leave these pheromones behind. Pheromones are vital to cats because they have strong senses of smell while their sight is lacking. Housecats use pheromones in the same way that wild cats do, and feel more secure when their environments smell of themselves. Rubbing with the head and tail is normal behavior that shouldn’t cause concern or necessitate a vet’s visit.

The guide below first explains why cats rub against things at all, before looking at why cats rub against their people so regularly. We’ll also look at ways to encourage your cat to rub against you, or stop it from rubbing on your legs (although why would you want to do that?)

Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces on Things?

There are several reasons why your cat might be rubbing against you. One or all of them may apply in your case. Key, though, is that cats claim ownership of things in their environment by using pheromones. Since cat pheromones play a key part in understanding rubbing behaviors, now would be a good time to explain what they are and how they work.

Pheromones are special chemicals that some animals’ bodies create. They are made in glands that secrete them; the pheromones can then be left on surfaces either through the animal rubbing against them, peeing on them, or other ways. This lets other animals know that they’re in the pheromone-creator’s space. Each animal has subtly different pheromones, which means they’re a little like fingerprints: a way to uniquely identifythe self or other animals.

Why Are Pheromones Important to Cats?

What makes them interesting is that pheromones can be picked up like any other kind of smell, but they can act like hormones when picked up by other animals. Hormones are chemicals that are produced within the body which are like the body’s internal messengers, regulating processes and encouraging certain behaviors. In other words, a pheromone produced by Cat A can alter Cat B’s behavior, for example by making Cat B run away or want to mate. This fact distinguishes pheromones from other kinds of smell, because most smells can’t alter behavior in the same way.

In the wild, cats rub against and pee on things in their environment to mark their territory. This is essential because it secures hunting rights and shelter that will help the cat survive and thrive. Say that Cat A marks its territory, and Cat B wanders by. Cat B will know that if it wants to hunt or mate there it will have to fight the other cat to do so. If there are no pheromones, then Cat B will feel like it’s in neutral territory, so could still face a fight, but if it’s strong it could claim that territory for itself. Or if Cat B can smell its own pheromones, it will feel like it’s somewhere safe and secure that other cats will typically stay away from.

In the same way, domestic cats like to smell their pheromones around your home: on their cat beds, on the furniture, on the floor, in every room, and yes, even on you! This makes the cat feel secure in its environment (and, if you didn’t know, is the mechanism by which tools like Feliway work). If your cat can’t smell any pheromones, or smells the pheromones of another cat, it won’t feel like it can safely walk around, sleep where it likes, or eat its food and go to the toilet in peace. This makes your cat feel anxious and unhappy.

Where Do Cats Produce Pheromones?

Cats produce pheromones in lots of places on their bodies. They have lots of different glands that each produce the same kind of pheromone. In specific, cats have pheromone glands in their cheeks and foreheads, paw pads, tails, and around their behinds. That’s why cats rub against you with these body parts.

Why Does My Cat Headbutt Me?

So, with all that being said, why do cats rub against their owners? As it happens, there are a few reasons…

1) Claiming Ownership with Pheromones

a cat harness
Cats rely on smell to navigate the world, both indoors and out. Pheromones play a big role in that.

As you’ve probably guessed, a big part of why cats rub against their people is to ‘claim ownership’ of them. It’s easy to interpret that as a kind of challenge, or as if your cat is trying to establish that it’s the ‘head of the pack’ or something along those lines. But it’s more that the cat is making its world make sense.

Think of it this way: you’re in your home and you see somebody in the hall. You don’t have your glasses on so you can’t clearly see who it is, so you put your glasses on and see that it’s a family member. When your cat rubs against you, it smells you and leaves some of its pheromones on you, as if it say Ah! I know who you are! You’re that person I know! Remember, cats have bad eyesight, so rely on their noses in the way we rely on our eyes.

It’s normal for your cat to ‘top up’ the pheromones in its home from time to time. Pheromones may be strong—at least to a cat with a sensitive sense of smell—but they gradually fade away. You can also expect to see this behavior triggered for this reason when:

  • You have only just brought your cat home. It is in a new environment and feels the need to claim it to feel secure.
  • You have recently added a new pet or member to the family. The cat may feel that its space is under threat, so will redouble its rubbing efforts!
  • You have just come home, so you smell like the outside. Your cat wants to make you smell like its pheromones so that it feels secure with you.

Again, these are all natural and normal behaviors. If you have a new family member, you may need to make special efforts to make your cat feel at home. But apart from that, these behaviors shouldn’t concern you.

2) Why Does My Cat Keep Meowing And Rubbing Against Everything!?

cat meowing a lot

It’s also possible for cats to use rubbing as a means of getting your attention. A housecat’s life revolves around that of its owner, so much so that over the years, cats have developed unique ways of interacting with people that their wild counterparts don’t display. One example is the meow: housecats meow while wild cats don’t. It’s a means of getting a person’s attention, often because the cat is hungry, but for other reasons too. It’s for this reason that when your cat gets your attention this way, it may be meowing too.

Your cat may also have learned to rub your legs and bump into you as a way of getting you to pet it. This would be a form of learned behavior. It noticed that every time it rubbed you to claim you, you gave it scritches behind its ears or tickled its belly. Over time, it figured out that whenever it wants your affection, all it has to do is butt into your legs. This doesn’t apply to all cats, of course. There are lots of cats that will rub up against you to ‘claim’ you, but then get annoyed when you try and pet them! But it may apply to yours.

3) Showing Love (Affiliation)

Rubbing behaviors also indicate affiliation. In simple terms, it’s as if your cat is saying that it’s on the same team as you. It might be tempting to say that your cat is saying I love you, although the question of whether cats feel love in the same way we do is too big to get into here!

This particularly applies when your cat is rubbing itself against you. Its expectation is that you will smell a little bit like its pheromones, and that it will smell a little bit like you. This is another behavior that cats can express in the wild which they have brought into the home. You can see it in action in groups of feral or stray cats which form groups: individuals within the group will headbutt and rub against their favorite group members to indicate their special affiliation within the group overall.

Showing security and friendliness is especially relevant when it comes to headbutting (also known as bunting). This is where the cat rubs against you with its face as opposed to its tail and behind. Cats have pheromone glands in their cheeks and foreheads, so bunting is a way of leaving some of these behind. But it’s also a signal of deep trust, because the cat is putting its vulnerable eyes, ears and face right up against you. With bunting, your cat is saying I trust you not to hurt me.

4) What Does It Mean When a Cat Rubs Its Face Against Yours?

You may notice this behavior when you’re lying down and your cat comes to sit in your lap. It might walk up your chest towards your face, and for want of a better word, bonk its forehead against yours. This is a big sign of trust, because not only is your cat headbutting as described above, but it’s doing so against your head/face. Your cat recognizes this as a symbolic act of mutual trust… So if any kind of cat behavior could be said to display love, it’s this one.

5) Gathering Information

Your cat may rub up against you to gather information about where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. As stated above, your cat may rub against you not just to put its scent on you, but to mingle your scent with its own, as a way of affiliating with you. When your cat does this, it picks up on your scent and can tell what you’ve been doing: have you seen any other cats on your travels? Did you go anywhere that there was food? Did you do anything interesting?

This is partly why cats rub against their people when their people come home. Not only do they want to reclaim you, they want to find out what you’ve been doing. This is especially the case for indoor cats which can’t go outside, as this is their only way of exploring the world outside.

6) Why Do Cats Rub Against You When Hungry?

cat food ingredients
Your cat might just want food!

Last but not least, your cat might rub against your legs and meow at you as a kind of learned behavior. Over time you may have accidentally taught your cat to get your attention in this way because you give it treats when it does. It gradually learned to repeat this behavior any time it’s hungry.

It’s a myth that cat’s can’t be trained. You can teach a cat both good and bad behaviors—this is an example of a ‘bad’ one, or at least inconvenient for you. It’s possible to teach your cat ‘out’ of doing this, though, as we’re about to find out…

Can You Make a Cat Stop Rubbing on Things?

You probably could dissuade your cat from rubbing on things by using clicker training, or another way of encouraging learned behaviors. Over time, if you repeat the training, the cat will eventually get whatever hint you’re trying to give it, whether you want it to stand on its hind legs to beg for treats, stop scratching furniture, or stop rubbing on things.

That being said, there is absolutely no need to stop your cat from displaying this behavior. It’s natural and normal, isn’t a major inconvenience to anybody, and you can’t even smell the pheromones your cat is leaving behind. If you don’t want your cat rubbing on you, but you don’t mind it rubbing on other things, you could consider the following tips:

  • Don’t reward your cat with attention when it rubs you. Don’t say anything, don’t look at it, and don’t scritch it behind the ears.
  • Reward your cat when it displays a kind of behavior you prefer. If you want your cat to greet you when you come home, but not rub itself all over you, wait for it to display the behavior you like (e.g. sitting still and looking at you). When it does, pet it or give it a treat.
  • Don’t hit or punish your cat for its behavior. It won’t understand that this reaction is in response to its behavior. All you’ll do is teach your cat not to like you.

Cats don’t understand cause and effect in the same way as we do, so punishment is almost never effective. Bear that in mind any time you train your cat to do something/not to do something.

Why Won’t My Cat Rub Against My Legs?

There’s nothing more frustrating than a cat that not showing you the love you want it to show you! If despite all of the above, your cat still doesn’t rub against your legs regularly (or at all), there could be a few reasons why.

One reason—and you should take heart from this—is that you may already smell enough like your cat. Cats mark their territory and belonging with their scent, and show their affiliation through mingling their scent with yours. But maybe you already smell like your cat, maybe because you’re at home a lot, because your cat sleeps on your clothes before you put them away, or because you never wash. Whatever the reason, your cat may already think that you smell plenty like it, in which case it wouldn’t need to rub up on your legs.

Another possibility is that your cat doesn’t feel very close to you. This could be because you’ve only just brought your cat home and it’s not sure whether you’re friendly or not. Or, it could be because you have a very independent cat. It’s not abnormal for a cat to be a little distant from its owner, especially if it’s an outdoor cat with its own life going on outside your four walls.

It is possible, though, to encourage your cat to show you more affection. You can use the kind of training described above to encourage affectionate behavior from your cat. Every time it shows you affection, show it affection back, and/or give it a treat. It will eventually learn to give you affection because it gets a positive response from you. For maximum effect, encourage it using clicker training.