Here’s the science behind the feline behavior.

By Melissa Locker
February 27, 2020

Cats can be a bit standoffish or seem like they are judging you for daring to drink a cup of coffee in their presence without offering them a sip, so it’s always nice when they come and rub their face against your leg. It feels nice and seems affectionate, but cats can be tricky little critters, so are they being sweet or is there something else going on? Turns out it’s a little bit of both.

“When your loving cat comes up and affectionately head butts you, this is his way of bonding with you,” writes Katelyn Schutz at Wisconsin Pet Care’s website. Cats like many animals use pheromones, those naturally-occurring scent chemicals, to communicate to other cats. They use pheromones to mark their territory or bond, as well as delivering other messages. The behavior, which is also known as bunting, can spread those pheromones around broadcasting their feelings or letting other cats know they were there first.

Cats release friendly pheromones from glands in their cheeks and chin, so when your favorite feline is rubbing its face on you, it usually means they are marking you as a friend. “It’s an affectionate gesture that can also be used as a form of greeting,” Dr. Jill E. Sackman, senior medical director for BluePearl Veterinary Partners’ Michigan Region, told PetMD.com. Cat mothers teach their little kittens that head rubbing can be a form of affection, so when they find a human they trust, they rub their heads on them.

It’s similar to when your cat kneads your lap, using the pheromones released by glands near its paw pads to mark you as safe and welcoming. In short, if your furry friend starts rubbing his face on you, take it as a compliment.

That said, not every cat rubbing on you is looking for a lifelong friendship or a good petting. Some are just looking for a little information, according to Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, an animal behavior expert, told PetMD.com. Through a good leg rub, cats can apparently suss out where a stranger comes from or help them determine if they have animals of their own. It’s a pretty impressive party trick!

In a blog post for Tufts University’s veterinary school, Borns-Weil noted that cats also bunt when they are anxious. Rubbing their scent around their environment can make “unfamiliar surroundings familiar and thus safer feeling.” Cats also bunt or rub their heads to let other cats know that they are around, which is why male cats tend to bunt on more items than female cats.

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