The 6 Reasons Cats Rub Against You, and If Should You Let Them

Written by Austin S.
Updated: November 5, 2022
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Cats are very intriguing creatures. You will find yourself constantly fascinated, perplexed, and even sometimes frustrated as a cat owner. However, all of these experiences come together to make having a cat a delight.

One thing that cat owners will soon notice is that cats love to rub up against you once they trust you. It could be with their forehead, cheeks, or their entire body. Many cat owners interpret this as a sign of affection, but are they right? Why do cats rub against you?

Cats mainly communicate using body language, and rubbing against you is one of them. In this article, you’ll find out the answer to, “Why do cats rub against you?” and what to do when they do.

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Why Do Cats Rub Their Body Against Your Legs?

Understanding the anatomy of a cat is one of the keys to answering this question. A cat has its scent glands at the top of its head, chin, cheeks, and the base of its tail. These glands contain a pheromone which the cat leaves behind when it rubs against you.

The rubbing behavior that a cat does is actually passed down from mother to kitten. In the cat world, it could mean affection, a need for attention, marking of territory, or even greetings. Your cat could also be gathering information by rubbing up against you. 

Affection

Rubbing is one of the ways that cats show affection. A cat will rub against its owner to show that it feels safe with them. You might even notice your cats do this around inanimate objects. It means the same; your cat is in a secure environment that they like.

This kind of show of affection could also include a few head bunts. (We explain more about this under the next heading.) It means that your cat is happy and content to be around you. This is where you could safely offer a few pets to show you care for them too.

A cat that is rubbing against you for affection will also have other tell-tale signs. You’ll notice that their face is soft with no tension around the ears, eyes, and whiskers. Their body will also be loose, and you could even get a few soft blinks.

A Need for Attention

Have you ever come back from work and almost fallen over because your cat decided to rub against your legs? It could be one of three things: your cat needs its dinner, wants to play, or wants to be petted. With time and the below tips, you’ll easily know what your cat needs.

Cats have a specific behavior known as head bunting or bunting. This is when your cat is rubbing its face on you. It is your cat’s way of showing you that it wants a few head scratches or just wants some attention.

So next time you walk in the door and your cat starts to rub up against you, try offering your hand. If they bunt your hand, that means they want affection. If not, it’s time to get their meal out and be on your way. However, note that you have to be careful even when your cat wants to be petted.

You see, sometimes, your cat could get overstimulated, especially if you don’t pet it right. Cats are different from dogs in this way. It’s also better to pet your cat’s tail and rump area other than down the back as with dogs. Head scratches are also better for your cat.

When petting your cat, if you’re watchful, you can tell when it is reaching its limit. Your cat will go from extremely relaxed to being attentive. You’ll also notice that they’ll turn their head to watch you pet them or try to sniff your fingers. At that point, it’s time to let go.

When your cat rubs against, say, a cabinet or bag that has its food, then that’s easy to interpret. Sometimes, however, your cat will rub against you aggressively to show that they need fresh water. It could also mean that their litter box needs cleaning out.

The more time you spend with your cat, the easier it’ll be for you to know which is which.

A young woman bunting heads with her calico cat
Head bunting, when a cat rubs its head against yours, is a sign of affection.

Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock.com

Greetings

You’ll notice this one when you’ve been away from your cat for a long time. Your cat will tend to run their body and head against your leg when they see you. It’s a very good sign; it means that your cat is happy that you’re here now. You may even get a few head bunts.

Marking Territory

Why do cats rub against you to mark territory? Cats rub up against their owner to claim them. One of the ways that cats interact with the world is by using scents. Remember the pheromones we mentioned earlier? While it is odorless to humans, other animals and cats can smell it easily.

These pheromones can say a lot about the cat that left them. Other animals can tell if the cat is male or female with just a whiff. They could even tell what mood your cat was in when they left the scent on you!

Pheromones also do not last forever, so your cat needs to reapply this sometimes. Most times, when you come home, your cats’ scent might have left you. They’ll want to mark you again, so they’ll rub up against you.

This is their way of letting other animals know that you are theirs. That scent says, “This person belongs to me.” It is thought that claiming from cats also releases endorphins that help your cat feel safe, stay calm, and be happy.

A cat rubbing against a blue jean-clad leg
Cats rub against their owners to “claim” them with pheromones from glands on their heads, chins, cheeks, and at the base of their tails.

iStock.com/kozorog

Gathering Information

After all of this talk of affection, you could be a little confused if you’ve seen your cat rub against a stranger. Don’t worry; this is also possible. It’s a different kind of rub, however. Sometimes your cat will rub their head against a new person or animal in its environment to size them up.

During this searching rub, your cat will gather information about the stranger using its sense of smell. It could even pick up any pheromones from other animals on them. You’ll, however, notice that this rub is with less abandon.

This then means that a rub from your cat to a stranger is definitely not them asking for a pet. So, don’t forget to give them a heads up. The same also applies when you meet a cat for the first time. A rub is not an invitation for you to touch or pet them.

Illness

If your cat is severely ill, rubbing aggressively against you could be one of the ways that it shows this. You might also notice your cat doing the same to rugs and other objects. You should also watch out for other strange behaviors from your cat at this point.

Some of the illnesses that could cause this include allergies, ear infections, and inter-cranial diseases like a tumor. Your cat could also have fleas or be suffering from feline hypersensitivity disorder. Most times, you’ll notice this change suddenly.

Other symptoms you could also see include head tilting, confusion, weight loss, and vomiting. Your cat could also start overgrooming itself, experience hair loss, and have diarrhea. In situations like these, please get in touch with your vet as soon as possible for evaluation and testing.

A veterinarian examining an orange and white cat
Sometimes cats rub against their owners to communicate that they don’t feel well.

Should I Let My Cat Rub Against Me?

Yes, absolutely! Rubbing against you is one of the ways that your cat communicates with you. Whether it is trying to claim you, say hi, or even show that it is sick, rubbing is an important interaction.

Rubbing is also a way for your cat to make you a part of its trusted environment. That way, your cat can know if there is an intruder. The stranger won’t have the pheromones that your cat has put on you and other items around your home with rubbing.

Final Words

There is a running joke online about how hard it can be to understand cats. They seem to have their own language, and it can take a while before they trust you enough to make an attempt. However, once you form a mutual bond with your cat, it is vital to understand how it communicates.

Rubbing against you is one of the ways that your cat relates to you. As we’ve discussed above, it could be for many different reasons. Most of these fall into either claiming you or trying to get your attention.

Also, don’t forget that rubbing could be your cat’s way of showing their affection for you. So, keep this in mind the next time you come home and almost trip because your cat is underfoot. It’s coming from a place of love, and it’s because your cat trusts you.  

A white cat rubbing against a person's legs
Cats rub against their owners for a wide variety of reasons.
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About the Author

Growing up in rural New England on a small scale farm gave me a lifelong passion for animals. I love learning about new wild animal species, habitats, animal evolutions, dogs, cats, and more. I've always been surrounded by pets and believe the best dog and best cat products are important to keeping our animals happy and healthy. It's my mission to help you learn more about wild animals, and how to care for your pets better with carefully reviewed products.

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