Cat Behavior: Why Do Cats Rub Against You?

Cats are people’s worst enemy … or so they say. Cats are nurturing and friendly when they are not stressed and have fear. When your cat rubs up against your legs or pushes his head against you, it’s a very positive sign. Head rubbing is a behavior cats learn as kittens with their mother. It’s an affectionate gesture that can also be used as a form of greeting.

Looking for Information

Cats rely heavily on their sense of smell to give them information about their environment.

When a cat rubs or pushes its head against you, also known as head butting or bunting, the cat is also marking you with his scent in a show of affiliation. Affiliative behaviors serve to maintain a connection within a group of individuals. Head rubbing is a cat’s way of marking its people and its environment and grouping them together with the same scent.

When meeting someone for the first time, a friendly cat may rub up against the visitor in greeting and as a way to get information about the new person, like where they come from and if they have animals of their own, says Borns-Weil. Whether or not this type of behavior serves as an invitation for affection varies from cat to cat, however.

Cats also greet other cats they know with a head rub or bunt. When cats live together and all rub on each other, a communal scent is spread throughout the group.

Staking Their Claim

Cats have scent glands located in their cheeks, forehead, chins, and the base of their tail and rubbing up against people, other cats and objects is a form of marking without being a territorial action like spraying. It’s a friendly, relaxing behavior, and in fact, synthetic feline pheromones used to help calm anxious cats are derived from the pheromones found in these scent glands, she says. Of course, scent marking doesn’t last forever so a cat will frequently go back and refresh its marking.

Humans may also reinforce the head rubbing or bunting behavior when we stroke or scratch the cat’s head in response, which cats enjoy. A lot of people don’t realize that cats prefer to be scratched and stroked on their heads and around their ears and are less fond of being petted along their backs or sides, so it’s entirely possible that head rubbing and bunting is also a cat’s way of encouraging his people to focus on scratching and stroking his head, and leave the rest of his body alone.