Few things in life are as thrilling and joyous as getting any kind of attention from your favorite feline. Sure, some cats are more aloof and reserved with their affection than others, but overall, some cat behaviors are universally common.
For example, you only need to open the fridge or use a can opener to elicit a response from your feline companion. Usually, this includes your cat rubbing the entire length of its body against your legs. It may even start with a headbutt (also known as bunting) which then continues into a long, languid swipe from the tip of the nose, all along the flank, all the way to the tush. Or perhaps the head bonk transforms into a blissful-looking nuzzle using their cheeks and chin.
On your arrival home after a long day, your cat may welcome you by rubbing against you too, often getting tangled between your legs as you try to enter your own home and put your things down.
So, why do cats rub against you? What does it mean when cats rub against you?
What’s the deal – what does it mean when cats rub against you?
It’s a pity cats can’t talk. Imagine what they would say if they could? But until that day arrives, we must learn to interpret our cat’s body language and the signals our cats send us.
The great news is that it’s usually a good sign when your cat rubs against you. You may even consider it a compliment. These are a few of the reasons that cats rub against you:
Cats rub against you to communicate
Cats communicate in a variety of ways. Yes, they may be vocal, including meows, purrs, chirps, and hisses. But their body language communicates a great deal more than their vocalizations do.
Cats use their whole body to communicate — from nose to tail. Tails, particularly, display a great deal of what your cat is feeling. When your cat is happy and content and wants to be affectionate, they may rub their body against you and curl their tail around your legs or arms, or neck.
You may have even seen cats display this kind of behavior with each other to show affection. They may walk alongside each other with the length of their bodies touching and their tails even interlocking at times in a sort of hug.
Why do stray cats rub against your legs? It’s a way for them to investigate and learn more about you. They will rub against you to gather all sorts of information about you and where you’ve been. Also, strays are pretty street smart and are professionals at manipulating humans into handing over yummy morsels. Rubbing up against humans? It’s a winning formula for securing a snack.
Cats rub against you for attention
Cats are mostly independent creatures, but occasionally they may seek out some attention by rubbing against their human. They may rub their head against your hand to let you know that now would be an appropriate time to lavish some love on them. This is your cue — get in there and claim those cuddles! This is the feline equivalent of a gilded invitation but be sure not to overstay your welcome. Keep an eye on your cat’s signals that they’ve had enough affection or risk being introduced to their murder mittens…
Your cat may also welcome you back on your return home by zigzagging between your legs and rubbing up against your legs as you come through the door. This is a way of showing you that you were missed, but it also has another function which takes us to our next point. Scent.
Cats rub against you to spread their scent
A cat’s world is a heavily scent-driven one. Much of what they communicate is done through scent.
Your cat has scent glands all over its body that produce pheromones that are used to communicate with other cats. These glands are located on their forehead, lips, chin, tail, cheeks, and paws.
These scent messages are used to communicate with other cats and linger long after they’ve been deposited. Most commonly, your cat will rub against to you leave their scent on you to let other cats know that you are theirs — “Back off, this human’s mine.”
This is the ultimate form of acceptance from a cat. A cat that doesn’t like you will probably make no such effort or attempt to claim you in this way and will avoid rubbing against you.
Different rubs, headbutts, and their meaning
Understanding your cat’s body language is a critical part of establishing a happy and healthy relationship with your feline overlord. Your cat may rub against you in different ways and each of these may mean different things.
Rubbing with their head
Why does my cat headbutt me?
Headbutts (also known as head bonks or bunting) are a way for cats to bond with you. It’s a sign of great trust and affection. This action spreads pheromones that communicate friendliness and security. A headbutt might simply be a sharp knock against you with the top of the head, or it may present as your cat rubbing the side of their nose and cheek against you in a cozy nuzzle. Some cats will even rub their teeth or gums on you.
Does your cat headbutt your face? If so, consider yourself super blessed. This is as intimate as it gets with a cat and going face-to-face is a sign of supreme trust and bonding. Often a cat that is expecting a treat or food is highly likely to headbutt you and spread these pheromones on you.
Rubbing with their sides
Why does my cat rub against me?
When your cat rubs their flanks against you like when they zigzag between your legs, is a way of scent mingling. They leave their scent on you and pick up some of your scent to create a sense of belonging. “You’re mine and I’m yours – we’re family”.
Rubbing with their butt and tail
Why do cats rub their tail against you?
The back end of your cat contains pheromone glands that communicate a variety of messages ranging from territory marking, sexual availability, and fear or stress.
When your cat rubs their tail or the area on their back before their tail, this sends a clear message that they really like you and that they want to claim you as their human. Do you feel honored? You should – you’ve been accepted into the inner circle.
Kneading and scratching
Another way that your cat rubs against you is when they knead you. This behavior, sometimes referred to as making biscuits, isn’t just about displaying pleasure and contentment or sharpening claws, the pawing action spreads pheromones from glands located in the paws.
In addition to leaving visual marks in the form of scratches, kneading deposits scent that marks you as their human. You’ve been claimed! And, while the scratching can be somewhat painful, it’s a high honor.
How to respond to a rub?
Because rubs are such a good sign of a healthy and happy relationship with your cat, the best way you can respond is to soak it all up and simply enjoy that your cat wants to be physically close to you and cover you in their scent.
The more you positively reinforce the behavior with praise and treat rewards, the more your cat will continue to rub against you.
But, why do cats go from rubbing against you affectionately to mauling you and drawing blood? It’s a fairly common query among pet owners, “Why do cats rub against you then bite?”. How do you go from affection to biting in a heartbeat?
It’s important to know that cats are very easily overstimulated. Yes, they want affection and attention. But when they’re done, they’re done. As their human, you need to learn the body language cues that your cat gives you to let you know that they have had enough. Often, your cat’s tail movements will be all you need to know when to back off.
It’s super important that you identify and respect your cat’s boundaries. Failing to do so can result in physical injury.
My cat doesn’t rub against me… Is that bad?
But what if your cat doesn’t rub against you? Does that mean your cat doesn’t love you? Not at all! Much like humans, some cats are just less inclined to be physically affectionate. They might also show you their affection in other ways – a slow blink, perhaps?
Remember, cats are really big on boundaries and won’t respond well to you forcing them to be physically affectionate in any way. Let them lead the encounters to allow them to feel in control. When your cat shows signs that they’re getting annoyed, stop what you’re doing and back off.
You can also positively reinforce the behavior which you wish to see more of. If your cat rubs against you and you want more of that, then heap on the praise and the treats. They’ll be more likely to repeat the behavior in the future.
Despite their reputation as cold and aloof creatures, cats do seek out affection and bonding with humans. Perhaps they do this in a way that is maybe not as easy to interpret, but learning about your cat’s body language can help you to respond appropriately to your cat’s communication.
There are a few reasons for cats rubbing themselves against you, but in general, it’s a behavior that shows a positive relationship between your feline and you. Whether your cat is headbutting you for treats or welcoming you home with a generous dousing of cat pheromones rubbed off onto your pants leg, these are all very positive interactions.
Aim to encourage these moments of affection and warmth by praising and rewarding your cat for showing such obvious signs that they do in fact like you. If your cat isn’t big on rubbing against you, look for other ways that they may be showing you that they love you. Make every effort to really make a fuss whenever they do rub against you, if this is something you’d like to see them do more.