Last Updated: 5 months ago

Face rubbing is one of those things that all cats do to their owners.

So, it makes sense to wonder if they’d like us to do it to them.

Face rubbing is a fairly common thing for cats to do to us owners. It’s right up there, along with the closely related headbutt.

Why do cats rub their faces on you? They do this to display affection and ownership.

However, just because they can do it to us doesn’t necessarily make it a two-way street.

Why Face Rubbing is a Thing

why do cats rub their face on you

Let’s be clear: no one really knows why cats do anything.

Scientists and animal behaviorists make educated guesses, but as we’ve said before, cats are horrible research subjects.

As far as face rubbing goes, science has a few potential answers, depending on what they’re rubbing up against.

In general, experts say it’s all about marking. Cats have glands throughout their sweet little faces that leave behind their scent.

So, when they rub up against something—say their favorite naptime chair—they’re basically saying, “I was here. This is mine. Don’t steal it.”

Since we’re talking about why they rub against you here, though, the most likely answers are as I said above: it’s both a sign of affection and ownership.

But face rubbing has many meanings, so we’re going to discuss all these reasons why your cat rubs its face on you in a moment. 

Why Do Cats Rub Their Face on Things and People?

So, you’ve probably noticed that your cat loves to rub its face on various objects around the house. 

But have you ever thought about the reason behind this cute gesture? Here are seven surprising explanations why do cats rub their face on you.

1. Marking Territory

cat rubbing face on things

As I already explained, cats have glands in their cheeks and chins, which release pheromones whenever your cat rubs against something.

Using these scent glands, cats communicate with other felines and warn other felines to stay away from their territory.

Moreover, cats can determine when another cat has been around, thanks to these pheromones. In this way, your feline friend can avoid conflict with other cats.

Humans can’t smell these subtle scent marks, but the chemicals are so pungent that cats don’t have problems recognizing each other by scent alone. 

2. Reestablishing Ownership

Let me tell you a secret. Cats don’t like to share things or people with other pets. 

And they have such an excellent sense of smell that it’s a piece of cake to pick up any scent marks or chemicals left by strange cats on you. 

If your kitty doesn’t swat you with its paws to punish you, you can expect a cat face rub to remove the smell of unfamiliar cats and establish its ownership.

The same thing will happen if you decide to introduce another cat. Your kitty will rub faces on objects to reestablish its claim and say, “This is mine!”

And when you have guests, your cat will seek to re-mark its territory and favorite objects as soon as the visitors are out of the house. 

Interestingly, cats often choose to rub against the coffee table’s edges, corners, box edges, or anything else that sticks out.

3. Looking for a Mate

cat looking for a mate

Do you know that male cats are more likely to rub their faces and bodies against objects than female cats?

Likely, this behavior has to do with your cat’s sexual impulses.

The more objects the cat rubs faces on, the more likely they are to attract females during the mating season.

In this case, intact cats say, “I’m interested! Come and find me!”

Moreover, rubbing faces on things and people also sends a message to other potential tomcats in the vicinity, warning them to stay away. 

4. Picking up Scents

Cats not only leave their unique scent mark behind when they rub against objects and people.

They also pick up tons of information, such as who has been around and when. That’s how your cat knows when you’ve been eating something tasty without sharing. 

Moreover, cats often rub their faces on people and things to merge their scent with the scent of their favorite person or object, especially in a multi-cat household

If you pay close attention to your cat’s body language, you’ll notice that cats who get along often use rubbing and bunting as a form of greeting.

In this way, cats create a unique scent, making it easy for them to distinguish a friend from a foe. Rubbing also helps with bonding.

5. Seeking Comfort

an affectionate cat headbutting the lady

Have you ever noticed that your cat’s head bunts more often when they are nervous? 

In times of stress, some cats and kittens will do several face rubs to spread their scent on objects or people in an attempt to create a familiar environment. 

So, when my kitten rubs its face against mine, I know the little one is seeking a little bit of extra comfort and reassurance. 

6. Seeking Attention

Why is a stray cat rubbing against me? 

If you feel like a cat magnet no matter where you go, the explanation is simple. Cats are trying to attract your attention and get something tasty in return. 

Moreover, I’ve noticed that my cats will often rub their faces on the furniture whenever they’re trying to make me get up and open the wet food can. 

7. Cats rub on you to say “I love you”

lady rubbing a sphynx cat

Why does my cat rub his face on my face?

When a cat rubs his face against your body, he is showing that he loves you by increasing his contact with you.

That’s why it’s often accompanied by blissful purring.

He is also showing ownership (as in, his ownership of you) by transferring his scent onto you.

It’s a calling card of sorts. It’s his way of saying, “Hey all you other cats, this human belongs to me!”

Which is also a sort of affection, if you think about it.

Do Cats Like to be on the Receiving End of Face Rubbing

man kissing her cat

The short and unsatisfying answer to this question is yes. Some don’t. It all depends on the cat.

A particularly friendly cuddle bug of a cat is most likely going to love you putting your face all over him.

We have one cat that is all about the cuddles. He loves to be held like a baby and snuggled in close against my cheeks.

On the other hand, a more reserved cat is probably not going to be so keen on the prospect of your face all up in his personal space.

Our other cat is the complete opposite of my cuddler. She decides when we’re going to snuggle, and she absolutely hates being held.

We made the mistake of rubbing our faces against hers once out of the blue, and she swatted!

Why Do Cats Like Their Cheek Rubbed?

cat lying on his owner's lap

Most cats will melt the moment you rub their cheeks because it feels good. And they might be itchy in this spot, so it’s a very pleasant experience when you scratch this itch.  

And when you rub your cat’s cheek, you get your cat’s scent all over your hand. So, your cat is pleased to have the opportunity to mark you. 

My cat purrs when I rub my face on hers

One of the greatest mistakes we humans have ever made in our efforts to understand cats is assuming that purring equals happiness.

Hey, we don’t exactly have a cat Rosetta stone, so we’re bound to make mistakes and misjudge their sounds.

While bliss is among the reasons cats purr, it’s far from the only one. The other most common reasons include:

  • To stimulate healing, especially of bones and tendons.
  • As a natural pain reliever.
  • To self-soothe in stressful situations.

New mama cats also use purring to guide their kittens, who are born unable to see or hear.

Interestingly, PetMD points out that when cats are purring out of happiness, it’s more to train the US to keep doing what we’re doing.

For example, if your cat purrs when you pet her, you associate that with joy, so you keep doing it. If she didn’t purr, you may think she’s not having fun and stop.

Isn’t that intriguing? All this time, we thought we were in charge and leading our cats towards behaviors that we wanted, but really, they’ve been training us!

Rubbing Vs. Headbutting

lady petting her siamese cat

First, according to cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, author of CatWise, what we call “head butting” is actually “bunting.”

Bunting, like rubbing, is all about using those scent glands to send a message.

However, while rubbing can mean “I own this” equally as often as “I like this,” Pam says that bunting is almost always a sign of affection.

The bunting and rubbing are reserved for bonding, social, comforting, and friendly purposes. When your cat engages in head bunting or head rubbing, he is placing his scent there as a social and affectionate gesture.

However, Pam doesn’t go into detail about whether kitties like to be on the receiving end. Again, it really depends on your cat’s personality.

It’s all about Your cat’s personality

Bottom line: Your cuddle bug may love face rubbing from you, but if you have a cat that wants affection when he wants it and only when he wants it, it’s inadvisable to put your face directly within striking distance.

Remember, your surly cat can love you and still tell you to back off with his claws. It’s all about personal preference. For example, the general consensus is that cats hate belly rubs.

However, both of the cats in my home present their bellies before I even make it over to them. They like belly rubs more than the dogs do!

Most cat owners who read this will assume that I’m making it up, but I assure you, it’s true. This type of individual preference holds true with face rubbing as well.

So if your cat is a regular feline Casanova for you, feel free to try face rubbing right back.

However, if your cat is more of a “serve me, human” type of cat, we would not recommend it. And remember, never push anything on your cat if he doesn’t want it.

You could end up scratched or bitten, or at the very least, your cat may give you the cold shoulder for a while.

Conclusion

Sometimes it’s hard to resist face-rubbing your cute kitty while they’re asleep or showing your pet how much you love them by scratching their chins. However, not all cats are fans of face rubs.

So, even if your cat loves nothing more than to rub against your legs, you shouldn’t try to return the gesture, or you risk getting the cold shoulder.

We’d love to hear from you! Does your cat love when you rub your face on him? Share in the comments!

Resources:

Does your cat really like it when you rub your face on him the way he does to you? Check out our cat health tips to find out the truth about face rubbing!
Ben Roberts
Ben Roberts

Ben is an animal lover, blogger, and all around geek. He divides his love equally between his family, his animals, and his video games. In his spare time he is attempting to get a blog off the ground. Boy, are they heavy!