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Why do cats rub against you?

There’s nothing more endearing than your cat rubbing against you when you return from a day out. As she weaves in and out of your legs, almost tripping you over, you feel appreciated and lifted by this sociable interaction. Of course, in true cat fashion, this act has ulterior motives.

Cats rub against you and other objects in order to transfer their scent. When your cat rubs its face on you, glands in its cheeks release pheromones, marking you as part of its territory. If your cat rubs your face, you are truly in its good books.

A tabby cat rubbing against its owner's legs.

Your cat considers you as a member of its tribe and you should accept this as a sign of your cat’s affectionate feelings towards you.

Of course, your cat also knows that rubbing against you will gain your attention – so make sure you lavish some upon it.

What does it mean if a cat rubs against you?

In the wild, where cats have to look after themselves, they need to know who’s a part of their tribe and who isn’t.

They do this by rubbing. In a way, you could call it a form of communication. It’s a cat saying, “You belong with me – we’re playing for the same team.”

It’s the same when they do it to us. When they rub their head into our hands they’re saying, “We’re in this together, we will hunt together, play together and live together.”

Maybe not the hunting bit perhaps. If I was to bring in a mouse, I’m not sure my wife would be best pleased. I’ll try it tomorrow and report back.

However, it’s more than this. They were taught this behavior by their mother when they were kittens and it can also be translated as a greeting.

When my cat comes into the bathroom and rubs his head into my leg, it’s him saying, ‘”Morning!” Probably also, “Hurry up, time to feed me!”

I know when my cats do this with me, I give them a stroke back which is probably taken as reciprocation.

A long-haired cat rubbing against its owner in the snow.

What’s the Effect of Them Rubbing Themselves on You?

There are scent glands in different places on a cat’s body. When a cat rubs itself against something quite firm, these glands release a pheromone.

When a cat does this it’s called bunting, or more conventionally headbutting (if they use their heads of course).

The substance these glands produce is actually known as a familiarisation pheromone and it is this that makes any object appear familiar to the cat.

Male cats appear to use bunting more than female cats although I could find no reason behind this.

You may notice that the behavior of the cat changes when they’re around a marked object. They may paw at it or roll in it for instance.

The effect wears off quite quickly though only to be of interest again a couple of hours later.

Should you stop your cat rubbing against you?

No, why would you? The equivalent of doing that is someone you know and trust coming up to you and wishing you a nice day, only for you to turn around and tell them to go away, don’t come near me!

Your little cat is just telling you that he trusts you and see’s you as part of his family. I’m not sure if I need to write any more on this particular aspect.

The vast majority of cat owners understand that this is part of the joy of having them. Over time you form a bond and this is dictated by the cat, not you.

So when they choose to communicate to you that they’ve accepted you and trust you, this is surely an honor.

How should you respond?

What should you do when your cat rubs against you? Well as we mentioned above, the worst thing you could do would be to shoo them away or maybe even do nothing. Respond in some positive way.

If you hold your hand out then they will probably rub their cheeks against you time and time again. Give them a little tickle on the head or around the ears.

It’s best to stay around the head region – you probably know that most cats prefer this than anywhere else on their body.

In fact, if we ventured anywhere other than the head with Harry (our ginger Maine Coon) for instance to try and get rid of some of his knots, he would literally try to kill us. Well, maybe not kill us but he wasn’t ever happy about it!

Something else that I do which I’m sure works is this. When your cat looks at you they will occasionally blink slowly. Do it back to them!

Don’t hold their gaze, just blink slowly and occasionally yawn, very obviously. They see this as a positive response to their blinking and it’s something that cats will do to each other.

What it says to them is the equivalent of ‘I trust you and we are the same’. Honestly, if you take just one thing out of this article then take this.

Try it at home, make sure your blinks are deliberate, deep, and exaggerated. Back it up with the other responses mentioned here and you will reap the rewards.

Pheromones and Synthetic Alternatives

Some people believe that they can use synthetic feline pheromones to change the behavior of a, particularly disruptive cat.

Synthetic pheromones are said to mimic the scent of a cat’s gland secretions and be good enough to fool your feline friend.

They can be used to calm your cat down and can be applied via a spray or diffuser. Here are a few examples of how (or when) you might want to use these:

  • Vets. We don’t even say that word in our house. The very sight of one of those cat-carriers brings anxiety levels to the absolute max. Ours know what to do as soon as they see it. They run upstairs and hide right under the bed. So far under the bed actually that the only way we can entice them out is with some chicken. If you spray these carriers with the synthetic pheromone, it may not help their initial anxiety when they see it but it may help when they’re in it.
  • An anxious cat. If your cat is particularly stressed or anxious, for whatever reason (may have even been abused in the past) then spraying an area in your home with this synthetic spray will most likely make them feel calm and less stressed. Try and keep it to just one room though, it will be considered a ‘safe-room’ for your cat until they have enough confidence to explore further afield.
  • Moving house. If your cat is moving to a new home it can be extremely stressful. Especially if the previous owner had cat(s) (or even dogs). Their scent will be all over the house and they will feel particularly stressed. This will take time until they feel safe again but spraying areas of the house with a synthetic alternative may speed up the process. Focus on one ‘safe room’ for the cats, where you cat put things that they’re familiar with (including friendly smells) – spray furniture in this room to help reduce their stress levels.
  • If you have multiple cats that just don’t get along, this can help! It won’t necessarily fix things overnight but it may certainly help. Try spraying the location where they eat and spend most of their time.

So just remember that although synthetic alternatives can definitely help with a lot of situations, they aren’t the answer to everything!

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