- Cats spread pheromones — chemical messages unique to cats — every time they rub against you.
- By rubbing on you, your cat can greet you, “mark” you as theirs, and pick up scents from your day.
- Cats may also rub against you more often during a heat cycle, or when they want food or attention.
Cat body language can be tough to read. Some days, you might swear your cat is saying “I love you” when they head-butt, or “bunt,” your hand. Other days, it may seem like they’re trying to trip you by weaving between your legs.
But your cat rubbing against you could mean a number of different things — and it usually comes down to their pheromones.
Pheromones are chemical messages only members of the same species can understand. Humans can’t smell cat pheromones, and neither can dogs. So, when your kitty rubs against something, they’re depositing these pheromones and delivering cat-specific messages like “This is my territory,” or “I’m looking for a mate.”
Below, you’ll find an in-depth exploration of the driving forces behind this adorable cat behavior that might just help you better understand your feline friend.
Why your cat rubs against you
Cats have five unique pheromones. While researchers don’t understand the purposes of all of them, three main pheromones and their functions include:
- F2: Tomcats (unneutered males) emit this pheromone when ready to mate.
- F3: This pheromone comes from your cat’s cheek or chin glands. Rubbing their cheeks on objects can help your cat “claim” their territory.
- F4: Your cat uses this social pheromone to mark familiar individuals — like other cats or humans. In short, it helps them recognize their friends and avoid foes.
More specifically, your cat may share their pheromones by rubbing you because:
1. They consider you part of their group
Feral cats often live together in social groups called colonies. When two cats belong to the same colony, they’ll rub against each to share their F4 pheromones and create one mega “group scent.”
Pet cats do this, too: If you have more than one cat, you may have seen this behavior when they rub or head-bunt each other — and taken plenty of cute photos as evidence.
But while this head-bunting might seem like conflict, it’s more of an amicable behavior.
“We don’t really see cats bunting up against other cats they have a hostile relationship with, so it’s not a huge stretch to assume cats are treating us as they would other cats that they like,” says Joey Lusvarti, cat behavior consultant at Class Act Cats.
In other words, your cat’s head-bunting could mean something like, “You’re part of the pride, human.”
2. They’re saying hello
When you get home from work or school, your feline friend may rush to the door to greet you. You’re not alone there — 83% of cats like to rub against their owners following a separation.
This could partly relate to the fact that your cat’s pheromones don’t last forever — they can wear off as you go about your day. So, rubbing their face against you when you come home helps your cat re-mark you with the familiar colony scent so you still smell like part of the group.
Additionally, when your cat rubs against you, they take in the scents you have on your clothes and body.
These scents let them know where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to that day,” says Dr. Chryrle Bonk, veterinarian at Excited Cats.
So yes, your cat might know when you’ve spent some time hanging out with another cat or even (gasp) a dog.
3. They want something
You might have trained your cat to rub against you without even realizing it.
“Cats are constantly learning what gets them what they want,” Lusvardi says.
Your response to your cat’s rubbing might train them to associate it with something they want — like food, pets, or going outside.
- If you often give your cat treats when they rub your legs, they may learn that rubbing equals food, leading them to rub your legs the next time they’re hungry.
- If you tend to ignore your cat’s rubbing or bunting, they may catch your attention in other ways when they want something — like meowing.
4. They’re in heat
Female cats can change their behavior when they go through heat — often by acting more frisky.
Sometimes, female cats can become overly affectionate when entering their heat cycle, says Dr. Hunter Finn, Integrative Veterinary Expert and owner of Pet Method Animal Hospital.
“They can rub against you much more than usual, be more vocal, and sometimes lift their tail a little too close to your face while rubbing on you,” Finn says.
While spayed cats don’t experience heat, if your intact female cat suddenly amps up her affectionate rubbing, that could mean she’s entered her heat cycle.
You can temporarily suppress your cat’s heat cycles through medication — but spaying your cat will stop these cycles altogether and remove all chances of pregnancy.
Is your cat rubbing against you ever a cause for concern?
Most of the time, rubbing is typical cat behavior, though some cats may do it a little more often than others. However, when your cat won’t stop rubbing or trying to catch your attention, that may indicate that something is off — especially if it comes in combination with a new behavior.
“Any behavior change in cats, especially if it’s sudden, could be a cause for concern,” Lusvarti says.
For example, if your cat likes to bunt you when hungry, and you notice they’re bunting more often than usual, that could mean they have an increased appetite for some reason.
According to Bonk, cat behavior to pay attention to includes:
- Excessive meowing: Meowing is normal — but if your normally quiet cat starts yowling and crying, that may suggest separation anxiety or another health issue.
- Clinginess: If your cat is sick, they might become physically anxious and follow you around.
- Standoffishness: At the same time, if your usually friendly cat becomes withdrawn or starts hiding, this could suggest illness or another cause for concern.
- Change in litter box habits: “Monitoring your cat’s litter box habits can give you great insight into their health,” Finn says. If your kitty suddenly prefers to do their business in the bathtub or the corner of your closet, they could be sick or stressed.
If your cat suddenly starts rubbing more, combined with another unusual behavior, it may be worth scheduling a check-up with your vet.
Cats communicate through their pheromones, a scent-based, cat-exclusive language. When your cat rubs against you, they’re sharing their pheromones with you — a high honor in the cat world.
According to Bonk, this rubbing typically happens as a sign of affection. “Cats are only going to rub on someone they’re comfortable with and want to claim as part of their group,” Bonk says.
In other words, when your cat weaves between your legs, they’re probably not trying to make you fall down the stairs. They most likely view you as a part of their trusted inner group — and want to make sure you smell like it. Tripping is just one of the prices you pay for kitty love.