Why do cats rub against you

Cats are complex, strong-minded and independent animals. They generally know what they want and will communicate this to you via very specific body language – including vocalizations and actions. One particularly common behavior of cats is rubbing – i.e. rubbing their body (be that their whole body, or just their head) against you and other objects. This article will investigate the reasons behind rubbing; why cats do this and what it might mean.

 

Body language

Cats’ body language is unique and very telling. Thus, it is important for cat owners to try to understand it in order to develop a healthy and positive relationship with their pet. Being able to interpret your cat’s behavior and react accordingly will lead to a stronger bond between you both, which is important in making sure your cat is comfortable and feels at ease around you.

Rubbing is a common behavior of cats. They are often observed rubbing their bodies against items in a house, objects found outside, as well as people’s legs. Cats will also often rub themselves against one another, and even other animals, when in one another’s presence. In addition to rubbing, cats often perform a related behavior known as head butting (also known as bunting). This is generally directed specifically at people or other animals, as opposed to inanimate objects.

Sense of smell

Cats have a very strong sense of smell – not as strong as dogs, but far stronger than humans. Thus, they are very easily able to detect scents that we humans would not even notice. In fact, scent is one of the key ways in which cats communicate. They have up to 200 million scent (olfactory) receptors located all over their bodies, whereas humans have just 5 million receptors, which are all located in the nose. Cats have receptors in their paws, anal glands and skin, for example. Additionally, they have an organ in the roof of their mouths, the vomeronasal organ, which helps to detect and process external smells. In this way, cats are well equipped to detect and process external smells.

Pheromones

Due to their ability to readily detect different scents, the behavior of cats is significantly influenced by pheromones. Pheromones are small, potent chemical factors secreted or excreted by animals. Once released, they function as external hormones and trigger specific emotional responses in other animals. Types of pheromones include territorial, sex, alarm and trail pheromones.

Marking

Cats use pheromones to mark things by rubbing – be that against objects, people or other animals. The moment they come into deliberate contact with such an object, pheromones are transferred and the cat’s own scent is deposited onto the object. This simple act of rubbing against something enables a cat to mark its own presence. This may be done for many different reasons, which we will now explore; some are more superior and meaningful than others (e.g. a territory-driven action, as opposed to just wanting a cuddle!).

Reasons for rubbing

  • Greeting

It is common for pet cats to rub against their owners when they return home from work. This form of rubbing serves simply as a friendly greeting signal and may also occur between cats – i.e. inter-species rubbing. Cats can infer a lot of information in this way and so it is often a vital part of their greeting strategy. This type of rubbing is often accompanied by short, high-pitched meows, which are commonly heard during such cat greetings.

  • Affection

If a cat simply wants to attract your attention and demand a cuddle, he may rub himself against you – generally against your legs and ankles. This is simply a means of affection – your cat is making himself known to you, hoping that you will notice him and offer a cuddle and some attention in return. Furthermore, by rubbing against you, a cat naturally transfers his scent onto you. This indicates comfort and friendship; the cat identifies with you and is happy to accept you as part of his feline family. This type of bonding also occurs between cats (as opposed to just from cats to humans). In this case, the rubbing is usually initiated by one cat – the dominant one. This ensures that all cats in the ‘family’ have the same scent and are therefore accepted.

  • Scratching

Although rubbing is often regarded as a significant behavior in cats, it may also be performed simply to relieve an irritating itch. This is an intuitive action – since cats cannot reach their entire body with their paws, the ability to utilize other objects to relieve itches is important. For this purpose, cats are likely to use inanimate objects rather than humans.

  • Demanding

Whilst a cat is perhaps more likely to use vocalizations to demand something specific such as food or water, he may also rub himself against you to attract your attention for this purpose. This direct confrontation is intended as a clear sign that your cat requires something from you. The most common vocalizations associated with these demands are short, repetitive meows; and a cat may also position himself next to or nearby the appropriate object, if he knows what he wants (e.g. near his empty food bowl if he is hungry!).

  • Information

As suggested previously, rubbing also enables cats to infer a broad sample of information – either from their surroundings or directly from another animal. It is an inquisitive behavior; allowing cats to sample their environment, investigate their surroundings, check out unfamiliar people and determine whether they are safe.

  • Marking

As touched upon above, marking is generally the main driving factor behind the rubbing behavior of cats. Rubbing is a form of marking because it enables the transfer of pheromones. This is generally a territorial behavior; a cat’s way of marking its presence and indicating to others that this is his territory. For example, if a cat rubs against your legs, he is essentially marking you as his own ‘property’. This should indicate to other cats in the area that this cat is there and this is his space – i.e. a territorial behavior.

It is possible for cats to estimate approximately how old a scent is by the strength of it that remains. This helps them to determine when the mark was made, thereby indicating whether they still need to be wary of the other, territorial cat, for example.

Cats are more likely to mark their territory when feeling stressed or threatened. In addition to rubbing, this is often done via urination. This type of marking exerts some form of territorial dominance, thereby reassuring the cat that he is safe – i.e. he has claimed this area or item to himself and so should hopefully feel more confident, or at least less insecure and threatened.

To maintain their sense of security, cats will repeat their rubbing behavior to re-mark an object once the initial pheromones and corresponding scents have faded.

Finding balance

Cat behavior can be perplexing at times. For example, a seemingly friendly and affectionate interaction between a cat and his owner can often very quickly turn into something aggressive. You might be stroking your purring cat one minute, only to be greeted by a totally unexpected bite the next. The same goes for friendly rubbing (i.e. greeting or affection); this behavior can often turn quickly into a more aggressive interaction. It is thought that this happens simply due to overstimulation; cats have a very fine line between what they accept as affection and what becomes simply annoying. Noticing small body language signals and understanding how to deal with such a situation will help to ensure your cat remains relaxed and happy – i.e. finding the right balance between affection and annoyance to suit your pet cat.

Bunting

In addition to whole body rubbing, cats often perform bunting – i.e. head butting. This is similar to rubbing, whereby scents are transferred and territory is marked; however, bunting is generally a calmer behavior, focused more on familial acceptance than dominance and territory. If your cat bunts you, for example, he is generally accepting you as part of his feline family. This indicates that he feels safe and comfortable in your presence and so is a good sign that you and your pet have a strong bond.

Pheromone therapy

If a cat starts to rub and mark excessively, it can become a nuisance – particularly if he is marking via urination, as opposed to just rubbing. If this is happening inside the house, for example, it can be very inconvenient and cause property damage. This is, however, only likely to happen if a cat is feeling incredibly uneasy and stressed. Such stress often occurs in multi-cat households, for example. The underlying problem should, of course, be addressed if possible. Cats that display excessive marking behavior might be calmed by spaying / neutering, for example; but it is not always so straightforward.

If nothing obvious can be changed to ease your cat, pheromone therapy is an alternative, possible approach. It is based on the known fact that, when a cat is placed in a completely neutral environment, i.e. with no marked territory, his anxiety will decrease. Scientists have developed specific synthetic pheromones that can be introduced into the environment in which your cat is feeling stressed.

One pheromone often used in pheromone therapy is a synthetic version of the F3 fraction of a facial feline pheromone. This pheromone is produced in the cheeks of cats and is therefore deposited when cats perform butting behavior. It is thought that this is a familiarization pheromone, common to all cats. When no F3 is present in a cat’s environment, stress levels increase. The introduction of F3 into your home is intended to indicate to your cat that he is in a safe space and does not need to worry because this territory is known and familiar ground.

Such therapy has proven valuable in veterinary hospitals, where cats (and other animals) often feel stressed. Pheromones are generally introduced via simple diffusers (see calming products) plugged into a socket, allowing them to distribute evenly in the air. This is effective because there is nothing obvious or intrusive for the cat, hence no additional stress is caused.

Pheromone therapy products are readily available for pet owners to purchase and use at home. If your cat displays major levels of stress and anxiety, professional help should of course be sought. However, pheromones are commonly used as a first port of call today and can even accompany any additional help that is necessary. It is a relatively fast intervention method and should not cause any detrimental effects even when used long-term, since the pheromones are not absorbed into the bloodstream.

Wild cats

Not only do domesticated cats rub against humans and other objects, but also native wild cats too – e.g. tigers and lions. These big cats have frequently been observed rubbing against trees and other prominent objects nearby in order to mark the territory as their own. This suggests that the behavior has been inherited by modern domesticated cats from their wild ancestors.

Conclusion

Rubbing is a natural and instinctive behavior performed by cats. There are many different meanings behind it, some more blatant than others. In general, however, rubbing (and bunting) is nothing to worry about. It is largely performed by cats to establish their surroundings, their territory and their family; and may also be accompanied by other behaviors such as vocalizations and specific body language. As a pet owner, being able to identify and interpret such behaviors will encourage a strong bond between you and your cat.

 

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