A wet cat kissing and rubbing faces with a woman.
A wet cat kissing and rubbing faces with a woman. Photography ©CasarsaGuru | E+ / Getty Images.

Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces on You?

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Watching cats is a window into a most mysterious world. My household is always abuzz with my cats’ antics. It’s often loud with the smashing and crashing of rambunctious play — there goes a vase! I knew I should have moved the lamp. But during their quieter moments is when things get really interesting. My two big toms walk around the house rubbing their faces on doorways, the corner of the couch, coffee table legs and seemingly every item they can reach. They especially take delight in rubbing their faces against my patient senior dog. This cat face rubbing also extends to me. My hands when I’m writing, my face when we’re chilling and my feet when I’m in bed. So, let’s find out — why do cats rub their faces on you and what’s the difference between rubbing their faces on your face and the end table?

why do cats rub their faces on you
Cat face rubbing means scent marking. Photography ©sdominick | E+ / Getty Images.

1. Cats rub their faces on you for scent marking.

When it comes to the question, “Why do cats rub their faces on you,” let’s get one thing straight — cats are not rubbing their faces on things because they are itchy. According to Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, in the Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine blog, the cats are using the glands in their faces to leave scent markings. She explains that there are glands in their chins, ears, sides and necks. These glands are activated when cats rub their faces on objects. This behavior is called headbutting or bunting and it’s a form of cat communication.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Professor Emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, echoes this sentiment in his article, The Art of Bunting. He states that cats are communicating to other cats when they leave a scent mark via rubbing that contains feline facial pheromones. Essentially, the cats are marking objects with a scent that lets other cats know they were here. In case anyone was wondering. It’s part of claiming their territory — and their territory extends to you! Or does it?

2. Cat face rubbing all started in the wild.

Cats in the wild needed to communicate to survive. In the book, Neurobiology of Chemical Communication by Mousumi Poddar-Sarkar and Ratan Lal Brahmachary, the authors state that the subject of chemical signaling, with pheromones being one aspect, is wide ranging in big cats. It’s believed the head bunting phenomenon evolved to help cats attract mates. When leaving a pheromone calling card, the cat is saying, “Smell my superior virility!” It’s also reported that big cats often have overlapping territories, so it could also be saying, “I’m a big boy, don’t mess with me.”

The scientific report, Comparative Analysis of the Domestic Cat Genome Reveals Genetic Signatures Underlying Feline Biology and Domestication, states there is strong evidence supporting the magnitude of cats’ reliance on pheromones for sociochemical communication. Which makes sense, since many big cats have territories that butt up to each other and sometimes overlap. What’s going on with each member of the terrain could mean the difference between life and death. Your cat rubbing his face on surfaces is rooted in some serious survival tactics!

Christian Nordqvist explains in an article from Medical News Today that pheromones act as behavior-altering agents. And it’s not just sexual (although the tigers in love with Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men may disagree). The behaviors they can trigger include: bonding, alarm, “the food’s this way,” stay away and sexual arousal. That’s a lot of lifesaving information if you’re a cat navigating Neolithic landscapes.

A man holding a cat close to his face.
Cats rub their faces to show affection. Photography ©Vasilisa_k | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

3. Cats rub their faces to show their affection.

While your cats are busy rubbing their faces on the inanimate objects of your home with the purpose of declaring it their property, are they really counting you as part of the inventory? There are plenty of elusive ways that cats show their affection. To the untrained eye, a lot of cat behaviors seem quirky. However, a lot of their actions are their way of displaying how much they love you. Cats actually rub their faces on you as a way of showing their love. It’s a confusing love message, but it is a message indeed.

Pam Johnson-Bennett, cat behaviorist and author, states in her blog, Cat Behavior Associates, that bunting behavior is exclusive with bonding, socializing and comforting. When your cat rubs his face on you, he’s scenting you with affection. Cats will also headbutt each other. She further explains that cat headbutting or bunting is also used to seek attention. If your cat hits you with his head and then turns it down and to the side, he could be asking for a scratch about the ears, neck and face. And there’s a good reason for that — when massaging and scratching around that area you are helping to release endorphins.

The fact is, the more your cat rubs his face on you, the more he’s telling you that he loves you. Every cat face rub translates to less of “Be Mine,” and more of “You’re Mine!”

Tell us: Does your cat rub his face on you?

Top photograph: Photography ©CasarsaGuru | E+ / Getty Images.

Read Next: Why Do Cats Knead? Explaining Cat Kneading, a Quirky Cat Behavior

 

24 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces on You?”

  1. Jake & Shari Angelo

    We have two rescued cats that were mistreated by their owners according to our local Humane Society. A mom and her male offspring. She is 2 years older than him but he is larger. They both are very loving and we love them. They are learning that we will not harm them no matter what which did not start out that well. They "allowed" us to pet them sometimes. Were afraid of our bed and became a bit violent if we tried to touch them while they were in our bed. We are long time cat owners and our last cats were with us from birth and lived just over 19 years. They were Main Coons and litter mates. They both died days apart after 19 years with us. When covid came around we adopted these two grown cats "mom and son" and she is 2 years his senior. They are much better now after a year last May since adoption, they sit with us, rub faces a lot, are learning to communicate when they are wanting to eat…I say "let's go eat" and they head for the bowels. The same with treats which they get in the afternoon. The son can catch a fuzzy toy, has a habit of knocking pens and pencils off my desk at will which we have made into a daily game. Your answer to "Why cats want to be rubbed on their faces is a relief as they demand constant touch from one of us or the other. Thanks for what you do.

  2. JULIE BOURLAND

    I love your story your a wonderful person all these stories are great I have 2 big tom cats I love very much..bless you for being a kind caring person…

  3. My two year old tuxedo is the sweetest. She’ll curl up right on my chest and rub her face and head into my face and neck. She loves cuddles and petting, on her terms though not mine lol. She’s just such a loving and pretty girl!

  4. When I see cats I don’t recognise, they just come up to me and start meowing and purring and I find it hard to leave them because they’re so cute. So I hang out my hand and they’re headbuttting it. I know now, at last, why they do that thank you so much that I wondered why so much. There isn’t a cat that doesn’t like me, and that I don’t like, to be honest. Everything I wanted was a cat. (I don’t really have one.)

  5. one of my four cats always standing on back two legs with paws up talking and looking like he needs attention why do they do that

  6. My male 3 yr old tuxedo head butts my lips and chin again and again while I kiss him he will will lick the tip of my nose just once a few times a weeks on occasion he licks my lip instead always only once maybe a second time rarely this happens during the bunting only he’s definitely loving on me I got him from a shelter at 9 months the vet I took him too he was sick said even with a cone and iv he would still love on her she was ready to pay the 600$ remaining on my 1200$ bill he’s my first cat always had dogs but my 11hr 4 day work weeks including lunch and drive time left not enough time for a puppy I’m surprised how much this cat is like my dog meets me at the door follows me from room to room and shows me lots of love and attention only difference is it’s the cats decision when to show the affection which makes it that much more special

  7. SUZANNE HOUFEK

    My boys a Cornish Rex and Australian Mist are extremely loving w/ me and my 3 dogs. Always, they rub just before eating and you must give them love and rubs. They all sleep in my bed and together. Cats are very sensitive contrary to comments i have seen in different articles. They know exactly what you are saying and always in the mood for loving. They are characters, they eat with their paws some times. And they understand just as well as the other FurBabies.

    1. sandee alison spanjer

      I agree with your comments. I have 4 cats now and have always had lots of them at the same time. It’s so easy to communicate with them and to see their different personality traits and understand them. I love ALL animals but am addicted to keeping cats as they are incredibly intelligent, clean and easy to look after as well as amazingly loving pets – it always astounds me when I hear people describing cats as cold and non-giving of affection….I find it the absolute opposite!

  8. Any animal can feel it in your hands and how you feel about them.Whether you like them and are affectionate or standoffish and are not crazy about them. I have seen this in;0 years of farming with many different types of animals.

  9. My little girl peaty a tiny white manx is always giving me face rubs as soon as I sit down. Of course I hate every moment of it, NOT! She is sweet feet peat
    ….

  10. Pingback: Cat Tail Wagging: The That means of Your Cat’s Completely different Tail Wags – Cute funny cat kitten pictures videos

  11. Our rescue kitty loves to sit on my son and my daughter’s laps and rub his face all over them. When he sits with me, he just purrs and asks me to pet him. He’s definitely got his favorite family members.

  12. My cats name is Mister and he came in to our home as a kitten back in 08′.
    I’ll walk in the room there he is on the bed just chillin and I’ll say”what’s up Mister with a nod of my head going up and he meuws at me silently, sqwints his eyes and then as soon as I have a seat he comes over and rubs his face on me. I just love him.

  13. Pingback: How Do Cats Show Affection? 7 Cat Affection Signs | Sporty Pets

  14. When I see cats that I don’t know, they just come up to me and start meowing and purring and I have a hard time leaving them because they’re so cute. So I stick my hand out and they headbutt it. Now I finally know the reason why they do that thank you so much I have been wondering why so much. To be honest, there’s not a cat that does not like me and that I don’t like. I always wanted a cat. (I still don’t have one.)

  15. RoseMary Broussard

    My large male cat always makes sure his face and his cold nose is all over my face, my little Muffie (girl) is so sweet she just rubs against my hands and lays on top of me when I sleep. Thank goodness it’s not the other way around because Kuddles (male) is almost 22 pounds, Muffie is a tiny 7 pounds, both are rescue kitties.

  16. Sadly I lost my cat last year he was not mine from a kitten we took him in from the owner when she moved from the area, rather than go to a strange area we agreed with the owner to take him to live with us. I had know him for 6 years before taking him in he was in and out our garden.. He came to live with us in 2015 but his past life was mostly spent outside so this did not I feel help his health, he became very ill and we had to have him put to sleep last year and it’s breaking my heart every day. He use to sleep on top of me rubbing and pushing his face into mine I was so glad to see that this means he loves and owns you so this is helping me a little to know he did love me as much as I loved him and I miss him so very much, and feel guilty because I had him put to sleep but the vet could not seem to help cure him. I miss my baby so much. Linda Fraser Scotland

  17. Thank you a lot. I have been worrying needlessly over my cat since the day I got her. This information really helped me calm down and relax more about the weird behaviours my cat has. I love my cat, like we all love our own cats.

  18. I know what it’s like to be rubbed on the face. I’ve had plenty of cats walk up to me and rub my face, and this counts especially for some BIG sweet friendly neighbor cats who’ve never met me. They come up to me, and headbutt me, purring in my ear, rubbing my face, giving me kisses, etc. It’s as if they’ve known me all their life. For the most part, I’ve never met a cat I didn’t like, and I believe most cats who’ve met me feel the same way about me as a human being. I’ve even had a few just jump right on my lap. What some people don’t realize is that they don’t choose the cat….. the cat chooses THEM. I’ve even had the pleasure of being hugged by a cat or two, including a BIG affectionate black cat that took place of another cat that my grandparents & I had. I’ve even had a longhaired Siamese cat just purr their way into my heart, only to find out that it liked me to the point where it actually draped itself around my neck!!! The first time this happened, it made me laugh. It’s unbelievable how cats can tell if us humans like them.

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