Why Do Cats Rub Against You?

Is your cat rubbing on your legs? Your face? Why do cats rub against you and do different rubs on different body parts mean different things?


One of the benefits of working at home as a freelance writer is spending more time with my cats — but countless times, they have messed up my typing and even accidentally shut off my computer by rubbing their faces and butting their heads on my hands. So, what gives? Why do cats rub against you?

This universal cat behavior is a compliment, experts say, because your kitty is communicating with you and marking you as his kin.

“Cats define their worlds through scent,” says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in California, who is also known as The Cat Coach. “It’s one way they identify their families, their friends and also their enemies. When a cat is rubbing up against you, what they’re doing is exchanging your scent. It’s reinforcing that you are part of [their] group. It’s very sweet.”

A gray cat headbutting a guy.
Cats rub up against you to leave long-lasting signals that you’re “theirs.” Photography ©Matteo Viviani | Thinkstock.

Why do cats rub against you? Long-lasting messages from scent mingling.

Cats have scent glands that secrete pheromones in several parts of their bodies, including their cheeks, tails, foreheads, paw pads and anal areas. When they rub something or someone, they deposit this scent and it sticks, says Amy Shojai, a certified animal behavior consultant in Texas.

“Scent communication not only signals something when the cat goes through the motions, but the smelly message lingers for long-term communication, too,” Amy says.

“For other types of communication, the cat and the other party must be present to see the friendly tail greeting, for example, or to hear the purr and hiss,” says Amy, the author of more than 30 pet-care books, including ComPETability: Solving Behavior Problems in Your Multi-Cat Household. “Vocal communication can only last as long as one breath at a time,” she says. “But scent continues to communicate, even when kitty has left the building.”

Cat rubbing can also be a matter of claiming territory, but it goes beyond that, Shojai says. Territorial marking is more directed toward objects and spaces, and typically involves clawing and cheek rubbing.

Two cats rubbing up against each other outdoors.
Feral cats rub against each other to mark members of their tribe. Photography ©maximkabb | Thinkstock.

Why do cats rub against you? To mark members of their tribe.

In colonies of feral cats, the felines mark each other as members of their tribe by rubbing and bunting their heads among themselves. This is a form of communication and acceptance, Krieger says. When cats transfer this behavior to humans, they are mingling their scents with ours, and also claiming acceptance. If a cat doesn’t like you, she probably will not rub against you, Krieger says.

When cats rub you, they are saying, “You’re part of the group, I’m part of you, we’re all part of the same group,” she says.

Do cats target different spots to rub on purpose?

Cats don’t really target certain human body parts with different messages; they usually just go for whichever area is accessible, Krieger says.

However, if a cat rubs your face, it feels more intimate and might be something a kitty only does if he particularly likes you. One of the most distinctive cat rubs is headbutting, which is when cats bump their heads on you with oomph. This, Shojai says, signals “I am your friend.”

“Not only does the head rubbing/bunting behavior leave pheromone signals that identify friendly encounters, it also places the cat’s face and eyes in vulnerable positions,” she says. “So, it’s not only expressing friendliness, but also trust. Typically, it’s the most confident cat that offers the head-bunting behavior, too.”

Cats also like to walk closely past us, rubbing their whole bodies against our legs. They often finish this by wrapping their tails around our legs. “This, again, is a friendly greeting between cats, and by extension, the humans they love and trust,” Shojai says.

Want your cat to rub against you? Reinforce the behavior!

As long as your cats aren’t knocking things out of your hands, you probably enjoy it when they rub up against you. Pet your cats when they rub against you to reinforce and reward the behavior, Krieger recommends.

“When cats come up to you… and they haven’t seen you all day and they rub you on the legs — if you automatically pet them, you reinforce that behavior and you put your scent back onto the cat,” she says. “They enjoy the affection and they like that.”

Originally published in 2018.

Featured photo: Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

Read Next: The Cat Headbutt: What Does It Mean, and Why Do Cats Do It?


44 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Rub Against You?”

  1. Stephanie blair

    I wouldn’t say it is I have 1 cat out of the 3 only purrs every odd time she was a rescue with her brother I got them wen they were 10 month n only in last few years demi has started the head butting, purrs but also she never shuts up constantly meow at u for attention an her asking for treats but hpshe doesn’t lie in bpmy bed she lies in her as do the rest butvatm I’m bedridden with a broken back n its always her brother that is in lying beside me n she comes through every so often to say hi,if she doesn’t meow wen I talk to her first Is a bad sign to me cos the wee woman really doesn’t b quiet lol. Don’t worry ure boys clearly very comfortable and happy with u or he wouldn’t go into a vulnerable position
    … i.e. laying down is when cats are more vulnerable and only do it wen they feel safe

  2. Stephanie blair

    My family cat did this to my mam he woke her up 4 5am to get his meadt then went back to bed wen my mam left for work lol. We lost him on 14th May, 12 days after his 18th birthday. Was like looking my daddy all over again

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  4. My Deano (approx 15-16 yr old) wants his food when he wants it!! You can tell as he weighs around 30 lbs. He also wakes me up early. First I get a head butt or two. Then he puts his paw on my chest. If that doesn’t work then the claws come out. Just enough to make sure you notice him! He’s one of six but the others just wait and let him be the alarm clock!!

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  9. My 12 y/o Calico was rescued from abuse at 5, so she has issues. But we work on it all the time. It took me about 3 years to pet her, as she didn’t like being touched for obvious reasons. Combing her long fur in summer was a major challenge, but I never gave up and now she asks to be combed with her body language. She rubs against my legs to greet me and to ask for food as well. And the slow-blink is almost daily now. She wakes me every morning and that’s good therapy for me. I am an abuse survivor myself, so we help each other. Love conquers all, and Cat Love is the best kind in my book.

  10. Our kitty, Willie, is 13 months old now. We adopted him from the Humane Society when he was eight weeks old. He was with a foster family who had found him abandoned and then bottle fed him until the day we adopted him. (Lucky us and lucky Willie). He loves to rub on our legs and sometimes head butts us. He has different ways of cuddling with both my wife and I. He lays on my lap, especially if I’m in our home office at the computer and demands my complete attention. At night, he jumps into bed with my wife and pushes himself clear up beside her with his cheek on her cheek and sometimes his little nose in her ear. It’s very sweet. He doesn’t get on her lap during the day, just mine. The only puzzle we have about him is his lack of purring. I’ve heard him purr maybe five times since we adopted him. Sometimes, though, I can sort of feel his body vibrate when he’s laying on my lap. Is this because he was abandoned by his mother and didn’t have anyone to teach him how to purr?

    1. By the way, I want to clarify that Willie wasn’t bottle-fed until for eight weeks. I think he was on soft kitty food and had water in a dish by then. We just happened to visit the Humane Society on the same day he was brought there by his foster parents.

  11. My cat Lizzie loves to rub up against our legs or attacking our legs when we don’t pay attention to her. We found her as a kitten in our car engine and she has been with us ever since. She does love to lick my nose sometimes when I’m holding her. Cats are mysterious sometimes but I wouldn’t give them up for the world.

  12. Lily, my black cat that I rescued, rubs against my legs. She also rubs against my face and snuggles against my chin.

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  14. A black cat always site’s at our nearest bus stop. It suddenly came out of nowhere, meowing at me. As soon as I sat on the bench, it jumped straight onto my knees, and rubbed itself against me. Then it kept on walking over me. It rubbed it’s head against my face. God bless that lovely cat, with the lovely attitude. It now waits for me to come out of my house, as it knows I’ll talk to it. She’s beautiful, but she belongs to a neighbour. Well, being her chosen friend is an honour. She visits my garden every day :)

  15. I have 7 rescues, 3 are my little babies. I have Yoshi my love, Buster my snuggle bug and Serena my oldest the Queen B. They all give me face rubs, head bumps and nose kisses. Two of my cats will rub on me, however they are totally in love with my husband. The 7th one, was dumped at my house, she would make a great only cat, she hates the other cats, but when they’re not around she will rub against my legs and let me pet her. She mostly hates the boys.

  16. I rescued a kitten that I saw thrown from a truck. At the time she couldn’t have been more that 3 to 4 weeks old. Brought her home, bought all the necessities, ie. litter, food, toys, etc. this cat has turned out to be the sweetest, most loving cat ever! She really never leaves my side. She will sit at the back door to look out but never attempts to go out. I took her out once in my arms and she was frightened and wanted back in. Do you think she remembers being tossed out? She has been a blessing to me! I hate that someone was that cruel to toss her out but thankful in every way that I found her!!

    1. Hi Debbie,

      I am no expert, but my cat is also afraid of going out. The few times he has “ventured out” he runs back in the house. We’ve had him since he was 3 months. He was raised by his mother together with his siblings. He has never been abused nor has he ever suffered a traumatic event. I believe that when cats are happy at home (as yours is) they don’t feel the need of going out. I don’t think there is anything wrong with your cat. I can’t believe someone did something so cruel to your cat. She is so lucky to have found you.

    2. All animals are afraid of any new change in their environment. You have to get them used to the change. We picked up our stray, a Russian Blue, off the street and took him in. We had to because he was getting into constant fights with another stray male and he was probably invading that male’s territory (our neighborhood) but he didn’t care. He really is a smart cat and remembers where the food is since we were feeding the strays.

      When we took him in, he meowed almost non-stop for a couple of days straight. That al0ne is unusual for Russian Blues which are quiet cats. After a couple of weeks, he was much quieter but he’s still not a quiet cat. He likes to meow and he still sounds like a kitten at 15lbs. I used to take him out on a leash but I can’t do that any more. He’s afraid to go outside now and the solid nylon collar will just hurt him.

      So I bought a pet capsule, a breathable backpack with screens. The one I bought is just big enough to fit a 15 pound cat and appears to be the biggest one there is. I take him out in that. He hates it but the more I take him out in it, the more he’s used to it.

    3. God bless you my friend.. Some people are just cruel!! She is very lucky you was there. I myself rescued /found a kitten that someone just left in a field I watched them take her out if a box and leave her like she was a piece of garbage. I believe I saved her but in all honesty she saved me!! She has helped me through hard times.. I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you for helping and saving her!!

  17. Thomas Jon Harrison

    What does it mean when a cat or another pet gives what I can only describe as a neurotic kiss. They luck you and the saliva sends a signal to your nervous system that seems to excite or pains all the nerve endings adjacent to that one particular point of contact like a jolt of electricity going through your nerve system? Can you give me any clues into this particular behaviour?

  18. I Thank cats are a lot smarter than some people think. when I was a kid 17 I spent some time in a camp way out in deep woods in that camp there were about 260 people learning skills any way behind the mess hall there was a places a friend and me would sit over looking a small cement lot for loading supplies anyway after that nothing but wood , we were sitting there and we saw a female cat and a tom cat come out of the woods to the center of the lot . she looked at him he laid down she ran off a big tom came out of the wood and started to make a spiral cir cal around the tom until he was right on top of him. and they were like very still . all this took about 5 minutes. all of a sudden here comes the female cat with a large tom Siamese cat he chased the one that came out of the wood back into the woods the female cat then went to the tom cat she had been with and they went off in a different direction . to me it was like they had to have communicated

    1. Cats are smarter than some humans, Sarah knows when its time to get her meds, she hears me open the refrigerator then she runs and hides.

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  21. When I’m sitting on the couch, my Smokey Josephine, rubs her head and whole side against the back of my head. I am hoping this is meant affectionately.

  22. My cat Harley is a indoor cat as I’m from Edinburgh so it’s not safe to let him out in the city. He doesn’t head butt but he’s always rubbing his body off my legs or crying for me to cuddle him. He wakes me up at odd hours by crying and pawing my face then climbing on me, going in a circle then laying down on my tummy. Not very comfortable but I let the fluff ball away wae it. He’s not long turned one but isn’t very big so I’m guessing he’s the runt of the litter so I can see why he’s still babyish and I’m more than happy to let him as he’s my wee harleybo.

  23. Jimmy Shaffer

    My cat, Gadget (Cause he has 7 toes on his front paws), doesn’t head bump anyone. He does however butt bump. He’ll come up to you, sitting or standing, and push his hip into your leg. Except for the head bumping, he does everything else a friendly cat would do. I’m actually a little upset from this because we’ve had him since he was a kitten and he used to sleep around my head at the top of my pillow. I want a head bump damnit..lol

  24. We have 3 cats, all mixed breed, and usually, they get along great. At the moment a male friend is spending time here, sleeping on my living room floor. One of the cats, a 9-month-old that has the markings of a tortoise shell, has a problem where she pees on the male’s blanket. She peed on the bedclothes of every man in her life so far. So my friend took it upon himself to teach the cat she has nothing to be afraid of, and tho it’s only been a month, we thought he’d succeeded. She quit peeing, went to him often for pets and he also gave out treats. She head bumped him, rubbed against his legs and used the litterbox all the time. Then suddenly when he wasn’t there but his bedding was down, she peed on it again! It was 5 weeks since the last time she did it. I noticed her pee was very dark – it didn’t smell, tho, and there’s always fresh water out for them. So why did she pee on the bedclothes again?

    1. Hi Patti — This article might be helpful: https://www.catster.com/lifestyle/does-your-cat-pee-on-the-sofa-or-bed-heres-why
      We also suggest contacting your vet about the issue. Hope your kitty feels better!

  25. A friendly community cat that I’ve been feeding rubs against my legs while he’s waiting for me to cat the wet food out of the cat and into a dish for him!

  26. Thanks for the fab magazine and these e-mails. I love my cats’ and love my dogs. Everyone actually gets along. I have one cat that is very into me and my husband has one. They chirp, rub and love to head butt us. What I adore the best is the wonderful “I love you stare” with eye contact that they give us!! My male cat likes to put his nose in my ear in the middle of the night which wakes me up! All of my pets are adopted and I actually love older pets and that gives them another chance to live in a nice home.

  27. Todd and Carl Jensen

    My Tinkerbell adopted us at the age of 4 1/2 years from Pet Alliance of America. Now she is 7 and loves us unconditionally with her head butts, subtle hand licks and chirping when she sees us. But she does not rub against our legs …ever. While this is curious to me and wonder why she does not do this, it does not matter because she fills our lives with such happiness! And when she is lying next to my face and I ask her for a kiss, she rubs her face against my cheek from her mouth to her ear! I always whisper to her ” Thank You for the kiss!”

  28. I have an almost 17 year old american shorttail who is still going out and mousing and trying to chase off cats who comes into his area I make him stay in at night but allow him to go out during the day I worry about him but if I make him stay in he peas outside the litter box and refuses to use it he has a brother who is half rag doll looks like a rag doll who I make to stay in but allow him to go out if I am out .Can you help me

    1. Hi Gayle,

      We suggest you contact your vet or a behaviorist to discuss why your cat pees outside the litter box.

      These articles might help, too:

  29. I have 14 cats and if I am still for longer than 10 seconds, they are all over me! Right now as I write this I have 7 on or next to me! In fact one of my 8# cats is perched on my shoulder! But they are my life and I am theirs. I would not trade their friendship and acceptance for anything!

  30. I now know my cats,Tinkerbell and Buttercup loves me,I had them at the age of three weeks old and I just love them so much.they have add joy to my life,everyday coming home they are waiting to rub against my legs and rub my forehead, they are truly wonderful.

  31. My cat uses his paws in the early morning hours to get me up to feed him so he can go out. I know he generally does his duty when he goes outside. If I don’t respond, the soft pat turns into claws. He seriously wants me up. It’s in the 5 o’clock area, which I would prefer at least 6, 6:30 a.m.

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