Many hypotheses have been proposed theories ranging from affection and love to possession and dominance. We’re here to help you distinguish fact from fiction. You will be surprised to learn that there is so much more to it than what we usually assume.
Cats are complex creatures with lots to tell. While humans rely on speech first and body language second, it is the other way around for our feline friends. They have several ways of using their body language, but nothing is as ubiquitous amongst cats as their signature move: leaning in and rubbing against you.
In this article, we will explain the reasons behind this iconic feline behavior. There is much more to it than meets the eye, as cats use it for many different purposes. But first, let us make a small introduction into the inner biological workings and give you a scientific explanation.
The Science Behind It
Felines rely heavily on olfactory stimuli, or in other words, they use smell to gather information much more than humans do. Cats rub against humans and objects to mark them as familiar. This is used for marking territory as well as “declaring” that someone is a family member.
Animals who have a strong olfactory sense can read a lot from how someone or something smells. For example, a cat that lives in a family will carry all the scents from her home and other pack members, which practically says: “I am a part of this clan; they love me and take care of me.” So mixing the scents of all family members is a very important social activity.
If you own more than one cat, you can often see them “bunting” (rubbing their heads against each other) which reassures both of them that they are in good relations and comfortable around each other.
This behavior stimulates pheromone production and mixes their scent into a sort of communal smell. It is somewhat similar to humans showing their family photos to others.
#1: What are Pheromones?
Pheromones are chemicals secreted by special glands. Plants and animals (including humans) use them to communicate with other members of the same species.
These chemicals act like hormones but outside of the body, and their purpose is to give information and influence the behavior of other individuals. They can also trigger certain developmental events.
In short, they are very important chemicals that form behavior, even in animals who can’t consciously sense them, such as humans.
#2: What Kind of Communication are Pheromones Used For?
All kinds, really. For example, there are alarm pheromones that are secreted by an animal which is under attack. It signals other members of the species to get into the “fight or flight” mode, helping them avoid the predator.
There are also territorial pheromones which are used to mark the boundaries of an animal’s territory, and to give information about gender and age of the “owner.”
Pheromones are also used for triggering reactions, informing opposite sex about breeding availability, providing a trail for other members (ants, for example), and overall communication.
#3: Cat Pheromones
Cats, like other animals, have special glands which release pheromones. These glands are located on the face or the body. The feline facial pheromone glands can be found around the cat’s mouth, forehead, cheeks, and chin. Other glands are on the paws, lower back, and tail.
Cats use these chemicals to mark their territory, “tag” people and object as familiar, and signal their breeding availability to the members of the opposite sex.
For example, pheromone glands in the paw pads release the chemicals when the cat scratches the surface. These specific pheromones give other cats information about the cat that was there, how long ago, and what mood she was in.
See Also: How Do Cats Sweat
On the other hand, perianal glands are used for marking territory and signaling that the cat is looking for a mate. For the needs of this article, we will focus on the pheromones used to mark family members, because those are used on us when the cat rubs against the owner.
#4: How Does it Work?
When a cat rubs against you, she leaves a trail of facial pheromones on your clothes and skin. She also intentionally picks up some of your scents to carry around because you are a family member.
Facial pheromone glands are the ones responsible for bonding and marking of familiar objects and family members. They are also called low intensity, or “friendly” pheromones.
When two cats bunt each other, or when your cat rubs against your legs or hands, she is using these glands.
#5: How Do Cats Sense Pheromones?
This might sound like a question with a very obvious answer, but there is actually an interesting detail you might not know about. Felines have a vomeronasal organ (also called the Jacobson’s organ) in the roof of the mouth. This enables them to analyze scents in a much more detailed way than a human can.
In fact, the best way to describe how this organ works is by imagining how it would be if you could taste the smells! Remember that funny face your cat makes after smelling something mouth open, hanging tongue, absent expression? That is the moment when she is analyzing the fine details of a scent using the Jacobson’s organ.
#6: Can Humans Smell These Chemicals?
For better or for worse, the human olfactory sense is by far too weak for these smells. We don’t know if cats target these chemical messages to other humans as well, but the message other cats get is very clear: “This human is spoken for!”. Humans, just like cats, emit pheromones but our reaction to them is mostly unconscious.
#7: How Long Does the Effect Last?
The longevity of the scent depends on the type of the pheromones. Chemicals used to mark territory and warn other fellow cats can stay potent for several weeks, while some pheromones produced by the facial glands decompose after just a few days. This is why refreshing the scent rubbing against your legs and purring softly is very important to a cat.
The Reasons Cats Like to Rub Against You
By now you probably got the idea why cats do this. But it is not all about friendship and tribal spirit. Some behaviors are very complex because cats use a lot of body language to communicate, and there is a lot to read into their behavior.
Here are some tips on how to decode your cat’s mannerisms, and reasons behind the rubbing and headbutting.
#1: It’s All about the Family
As we already said, cats use the scent from the facial glands to mark the familiar objects and to add their own scent to the “family mix.” Your furry friend takes this task very seriously; whenever you come back home from an office, a grocery store, or a walk in the park, she will quickly make sure you smell like home again.
Naturally, your first reaction would be to pet your cat, which in her book means you are participating in the exchange of scents. This is very reassuring to the cat and makes her feel confident that you are happy to be a part of the family.
#2: Showing Affection
Cats readily show affection amongst family members, be it humans or other felines. Bunting and tail hugs are very common ways of doing this.
A tail wrapped around your leg would be a human equivalent of a hug, while a headbutt is an ultimate show of affection and closeness. This is a very loving gesture that also says “You are mine, human!” straight to your face.
All of these gestures are common in the feline world so it might be that your cat sees you as a cute, but very clumsy fellow cat.
As we have already said, cats rely heavily on their sense of smell. A cat will mark objects and places as “familiar” so that she can later recognize them as a part of her territory.
You probably noticed how your cat thoroughly rubs against a new piece of furniture or freshly washed linens. This is her way of placing the “funny smelling” object into the familiar category and making it a part of her home.
When a kitten rubs against his/her mom, he or she is usually asking for food or grooming. This body language is used on humans as well. If your cat rubs against the fridge, the message is very clear: she wants to get something to munch on!
If she rubs against the front door, she might be asking to be let outside. A headbutt while two of you are lazily chilling on the bed is also a no-brainer: she wants some cuddling.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t assume that an unfamiliar cat wants a snuggle session if she rubs against your leg. While it might be that she is a very friendly stranger, she also might just use you to advertise her existence around the neighborhood.
See Also: How Do Cats Communicate
#5: Displaced Aggression
When your cat rubs against you in a way that is a bit frantic, it might be that she is scolding you for something in the gentlest way she knows. Your cat knows it is not alright to bite or scratch, so she is trying to draw your attention to something that frustrates her.
It might be that she needs her litter box cleaned or that she found her last meal a bit slim. This behavior is perfectly fine, but you should try to find out what exactly is bothering her.
#6: Territorial Marking
The behavior of domestic cats isn’t much different from that of their wild ancestors. In fact, all felines, big and small, share the same mannerisms and have very similar pheromones.
Chemical signaling is widely used in all cat species, and one of the most important aspects is marking the territory of every individual. Big cats usually have territories that are set closely to each other and sometimes overlap. Updating the chemical stamp is crucial to understanding what’s happening to the closest neighbors.
These signals reveal a lot: the mood, readiness for mating, health, and psychological state of the other cat. To put it simply, information given in this way can mean the difference between life and death to a wildcat.
Domestic cats today live in a vastly different environment, but the need to clearly set the boundaries of what is safe and familiar is still strong and necessary for a cat to feel secure.
Humans have a very persistent habit of antromorphisizing animal behavior. While it is very easy to fall into this trap when it comes to what we might see as an obvious display of physical affection, we should try to remind ourselves that cats have a very different approach to the idea of family and territory.
The first step to grasping how and why they are different from humans is understanding that the feline olfactory sense is much more powerful than that of humans.
Where we use our eyesight, cats use their noses. Where we build walls to mark the borders of what we call our own, cats use scents. Where we hug and kiss our loved ones and carry their photos in the wallet, cats share personal body odor with family members.
Yes, rubbing against your leg is an obvious sign of affection and belonging but it is also so much more than that. We hope that this article helped you understand the reasons behind it, so you and your beloved fluff ball can communicate better in the future.
Tell us more about your cat’s rubbing habits! When does she usually do it? Do you think it may have other meanings? Share your thoughts in the comments section below. Also, check out our article on what does it mean when a cat licks you.