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Why Do Cats Rub Against You? 4 Reasons for this Behavior

cat rubbing against owner
Image Credit: Irina Kozorog, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by Ashley Bates

One of the most heart-warming feelings is a kitty rubbing up against you, asking to be pet. But have you ever stopped to wonder what those gestures mean in cat language? There are two main ways a cat rubs its human friends—something called head bunting and leg rubbing.

Body language can teach you so many important things about how your cat feels. When they’re showing you attention, it’s only natural to reciprocate. But what if it’s not the attention they seek? Find out what each of these actions mean so you can decode kitty speak.

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Cats & Olfactory Senses

Smell is your cat’s primary sense. They use scent more than any of the others to learn things about their surroundings. Unlike people who only have 5 million odor sensors, cats have over 200 million! While they use their nose to navigate their surroundings, they also leave a trail of their own.

Cats have scent glands in their paws where they secrete pheromones. When cats knead a blanket or scratch their post, the pheromones transfer. Other cats use their ultra-sharp olfactory senses to recognize these hormones.

When a cat rubs you, they’re transferring their scent onto you—kind of a claiming tactic (aw!).

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Types of Cat Rubbing

There is a different meaning to each way your feline approaches you. Most commonly, when a kitty rubs against your leg or hand—they’re trying to accomplish something more than just being affectionate. It’s a means of communication, but what are they trying to say?

1. Head Bunting

We’ve all been bunted before—your cat just comes up and forces you to pet them by pushing their head into your palm. But are they demanding attention, or is it something more?

Bunting is a carnivore trait—big cats do this to each other in the wild. Another term for the behavior is “allorubbing.” They use this method to gather your scent and leave their own on you. It’s very much a territorial, lovable gesture.

Ultimately, your cat is saying that you’re part of their circle, and they left their mark to prove it’s true.

cat rubbing face on man's leg
Image Credit: AlenaBalotnik, Shutterstock

2. Leg Rubbing

Leg rubbing is something even people who don’t own cats have probably encountered. This is a greeting to say hello—but it’s also a way to mark you with their tail and cheeks. Some cats will do this to strangers if they’re extra friendly, but most reserve this behavior for their humans.

You might find that they rub on your legs when they are welcoming you or when they’re hungry. We’ve all tripped over our cats as they weave through our legs, begging for food or scratches with loud meows. Cats will even rub against inanimate objects in this manner.

While it can be a nuisance when we’re in a hurry, it’s an adorable gesture from our feline friends that every cat lover can appreciate.

3. Rolling

When a cat is rolling, it’s often a sign of happiness and contentment. You might find them rolling to show you their belly when you enter the room. This is your cat’s way of saying they’re pleased with whatever is going on, and they’re excited to see you.

If you’re lying next to your kitty, they may roll onto you while purring. They are comfortable, cozy, and love their current company. Be careful, though—we all know how one accidental touch of the tummy can send your cat into attack-mode, gloves off!

4. Smelling or Rubbing on Human Feet

Just like cats, we produce pheromones from our feet, too. If your feet are sweating or secreting any scents, you might not smell it—but your kitties do.

If you’re relaxing in your recliner and your cat won’t stop rubbing and sniffing your feet, they’re just checking out the signals your body is putting off. They want to contribute to these pheromones by giving you some of their own.

cat biting feet
Image Credit: emdot, Flickr

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Final Thoughts

So, now we know that almost all feline rubbing has to do with marking. It’s yet another way cats can use scent glands to show possession—both of other beings and their territory.

Kitties definitely have interesting body language—including their bunting and marking. It’s fascinating just how they perceive us, and it’s always best to know how they feel about you. Rubbing against you means they leave their stamp of approval—and that should make you feel special.

Featured Image: Irina Kozorog, Shutterstock

About the Author

Ashley Bates
Ashley Bates
Ashley Bates is a freelance dog writer and pet enthusiast who is currently studying the art of animal therapy. A mother to four human children— and 23 furry and feathery kids, too – Ashley volunteers at local shelters, advocates for animal well-being, and rescues every creature she finds. Her mission is to create awareness, education, and entertainment about pets to prevent homelessness. Her specialties are cats and dogs.

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