Any cat owner can attest to this: you walk through the door after a long day of work and your cat is there to greet you, rubbing against your legs. Or perhaps at dinner time she won’t leave your side, bumping her head against you and rubbing against your shins. This persistent, yet very adorable, behavior can leave cat owners wondering: why does my cat rub on me? Is it a sign of affection? A way to get my attention? Are they trying to trip me?
There are actually several reasons why cats head butt, (also known as bunting) the main one being to transfer their scent onto you. Cats have scent glands on their cheeks, forehead, chin, and the base of their tail. So when they rub against you, they’re transferring their scent onto you.
“Cats have so many ways of being physically close. They touch noses, which is like a handshake. Head bunting is the next step. It’s like a hug,” explains cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett in an interview with PetMD.
Like dogs, cats rely heavily on smell in their day-to-day life. Feral cats will rub against one another, making it clear that they are all bonded together. By transferring their scent onto you, they’re creating that association with you. They may do this to you, your house, furniture, or even the yard. Everything is now grouped together under the same scent. Unlike spraying, rubbing against you is meant as a friendly gesture. It’s also a way to learn more information about new people and places.
This would explain why a cat rubbing on you doesn’t necessarily mean they want you to pet them. While a cat that is bunting is usually in a friendly mood, they still might swat or bite when you try to pet them. When reciprocating a head butt, make sure you go slow, ensuring that this is something the cat wants. Try putting your hand out to see if they come towards you or if they turn away.
Other times, reciprocation is exactly what the cat is looking for. Humans encourage bunting by returning the favor and petting cats on the head and cheeks. Cats actually prefer being pet on their head and around their ears. It’s possible when they’re head butting against you, they’re encouraging you to continue petting them in those places as opposed to on their back or sides.
The next time your cat comes up from some head butts, know that it’s a compliment! You’re officially a part of their family.