Why Do Cats Rub Against You?

By Chyrle Bonk, DVM July 27, 2019

Nothing beats coming home at the end of a long day and having your faithful kitty greet you at the front door by curling around your legs with palpable purrs.  Hopefully I am painting a familiar picture instead of the one where you are trying to get through the front door with grocery bags in hand and tripping over your feline friend when your kitty attempts to rub against your legs.  Whatever the scenario, you might be wondering why your cat can’t help but rub on you, the furniture, the dog, or whatever else may be in their path.

Why Do Cats Rub Against You?

When a cat rubs against you, it should be viewed as a friendly action and an invite to become part of their family.  Cats rely strongly on their sense of smell to learn about things in their environment.  Rubbing on you allows your cat to leave some of their scent on you to lay their claim so other animals know that you belong to them. 

To get a little more in depth, there are basically three reasons why a cat rubs against you, other animals, or inanimate objects.

  • Spreading pheromones

Cats have scent glands on their face and the base of their tail that secrete their own personal pheromones.  When rubbing against you, they are basically coating you in their scent not only to lay claim to you, but also to mark you as someone or something familiar to them.  Just as with people, cats find things that are familiar more comforting.

  • Curiosity

The rubbing behavior can also be a way to check out what smells you have brought home with you.  This helps them learn about your day; where you’ve been, what you ate for lunch, etc.

  • Communication

Rubbing on you may be your cat’s way of trying to get your attention.  Maybe your cat is hungry, wants you to sit down for a petting session, or would like you to open the blinds to see out the window.  If you think about it, nearly tripping over your cat when you just get home is a great way of getting your attention.

As you can see, there’s actually many reasons as to why a cat may rub against you.  Let’s take a look at some other details surrounding this behavior.

Do Cats Rub Against Each Other In The Wild?

Since rubbing is a form of social activity in which cats spread their scent and lay claim to each other, cats from the same colony, wild or not, definitely rub on each other.  It’s a learned behavior that mothers pass on to their kittens or cubs.  It allows for a moment of intimacy as well as the opporunity to spread pheromones.  Cats in a colony not only recognize each other based on their scent, but they also commingle those scents in order to create a peaceful, familiar, and comforting environment.  Again, since this is a behavior that mother cats teach their young, rubbing against other colony mates help bring them back to the safe feelings of kitten hood.

You may even notice that stray cats, if friendly enough, will rub against you.  These stray cats have most likely recently lost their human home and are hoping to mark you as their new parent.  Strays may also use this rubbing behavior to tell you that they’re looking for a meal, a brushing session, or shelter.

Is Rubbing A Necessary Behavior For Cats?

Cats are not critters that will sit idle while the world passes them by.  They are more likely to be involved in their surroundings.  If you’ve ever left an empty box open in your living room, then you know what I’m talking about.  Cats love to explore their environment and investigate the unknown.  As we said before, cats use their keen sense of smell to aid in their explorations.  If cats didn’t participate in the rubbing behavior, they would be missing out on the opportunity to spread their scent to things that they consider theirs.  Moreover, they would also be missing out on the opportunity to take in the scents that you bring home that helps provide insights into the outside world.

If marking their territory isn’t enough, cats also like to communicate with us.  Don’t believe me?  Try sitting down with your cat sometime and have a face-to-face 'conversation.'  Most cats will at least quietly listen to your troubles if not chime in when they deem appropriate.  But, it’s not always about you.  Sometimes your cat wants to get your attention, either for dinner, pets, or to be let outside.  Rubbing on you is a great way to not only say 'I love you,' but also to say 'Hey, look at me for a moment, please.'  There are definitely other ways for cats to get your attention, but meowing incessantly or knocking flowers off the coffee table might get them in trouble.

Cats need the rubbing behavior as an important form of communication.  It lets you know that they have needs that must be met and is a great way to greet friends and family.

When Are Cats Most Likely To Rub On You?

Since the rubbing behavior is used among cats in a colony as a form of greeting, you’re most likely to get rubbed on when you first get home.  If you’ve been around other cats and return home your cat will probably be extra vigilant in rubbing against you to try to re-stake their claim on you.  They will also spend extra time checking out the smells to determine if the other cats are friend or foe. 

You may also notice more rubbing near dinnertime or if you’ve been too busy around the house to give your kitty the attention that they want.  This type of rubbing is just to get your attention so that you can tend to their needs as they see fit. 

Do Cats Rub Against Other Things?

As the pet parent, you would have to be your cat’s favorite rubbing spot, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have other preferences.  Kitties will want to mark everyone in their family: people, cats, dogs, and any other living breathing critters that will tolerate it.  But the rubbing behavior doesn’t stop there.  Cats will want to leave their pheromone stamp on everything they consider theirs, so don’t be surprised to see them rubbing on their bed, the table leg, the door jam, or even the sides of the litter box.  This rubbing is like using a Sharpie to write their name on their most prized possessions to keep other animals from using their stuff. 

Why Do Cats Rub Against You And Then Bite?

As if to add to the perplexing behavior of rubbing against you, you may have been a victim to a welcome home rub that was immediately followed with a bite out of nowhere.  You may have also experienced a similar bite while you were petting your cat.  It’s the ultimate mixed signal which can usually be explained by overstimulation.  Your kitty greets you at the door with a body rub against your leg to lay claim as well as check out what smells you’ve brought home.  Sometimes those smells may be so intense, especially if you’ve been around other cats, that they may decide to bite mid-rub.  The bite is more like a reflex reaction to the intense smells, so try not to take it personally.

Your kitty may also rub on you and then bite if they’re trying to get your attention and you’re just not listening.  If rubbing on you and nearly tripping you doesn’t work, they may have to initiate a little pain in order to get their message across that they want dinner and they want it now!

Why Do Cats Rub Their Teeth On You? 

Since we were just talking about biting, some of you may be wondering why your cat rubs their teeth on you.  While you might be thinking that your cat is using you as a personal toothbrush, it’s more likely that your kitty is trying to engage the scent glands at the corners of their mouth to further cover you in pheromones.  A cat’s scent glands are located on the cheeks, forehead, base of the tail, and even the corners of the mouth.  So parting their lips and rubbing helps to get those scent glands involved. 

How Can You Increase A Cat’s Rubbing Behavior?

It’s always nice to know that your cat loves you, especially since some can be a little reserved when it comes to showing their affection.  If you want to promote your cat rubbing against you, simply reward your cat when it happens.  When you just get home and your cat greets you at the door with a wayward rub, make sure to rub them back.  Take the time to check in with them in the way that they are checking in with you.  You should also give them time to smell you.  The last thing that they want is to be rushed through an investigation.  The more attention that you give them, the more attention you will get back.

We should all take a cat rubbing against us as a sign of affection and be honored that they have chosen to call us theirs.  But rubbing is about more than just spreading their scent, it’s also a form of greeting, a way to get in touch with the world, and a means of grabbing your attention.  To further increase your shared bond, allow your cat the opportunity to communicate by rubbing against you.

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