If you have a cat, you’ll no doubt have noticed how they love to rub their faces on things, be that the couch, your coffee table, or even you! I love it when my cats rub their faces on me; it is affectionate, heartwarming, and loving. But what is the reasoning behind this behavior? Why do cats rub their faces on things?
If you’re wondering whether your cat has an itchy face, the answer is no. In fact, the majority of the time, cats rub their faces on everything to mark their scent, which stems from their territorial behavior in the wild and is key for their survival.
Cats use scent as a form of communication. By leaving their scent behind, they could be claiming ownership of an object, communicating signs of affection, or to signal to other cats that they wish to mate. When cats rub against their owner, they are likely saying they love you!
In this article, I will further explain the reasoning behind this cute behavior so that you can better understand your feline friend. This will give you a better insight into how they act, allowing you to form a deeper connection and fall in love with your little furball even more!
Most Common Reason: Leaving Scent Marks
According to vets, the most common reason cats rub their faces on everything – also known as head bunting or headbutting – is to mark their scent.
Cats have sweat glands in several places on their bodies that produce chemicals called pheromones. The majority of these are on their head, including their chin, the corners of their mouth, their ears, and their temples. When cats rub their faces on things, these pheromones are transferred from their heads and onto the object.
How cats rub their heads usually depends on the object they are targeting, but thanks to pheromone glands being located in multiple areas on a cat’s head, each different head movement is effective. Objects taller than your cat will likely be rubbed with their ears and the top of their head, lower objects with their chin, and objects of the same height with their mouth.
Each cat produces identifiable pheromones that smell slightly different from every other cat’s pheromones, much like each human has a different fingerprint. When rubbing their head on an object, animal, or person, pheromones are deposited onto the item they are rubbing against. This leaves behind a scent that other cats can pick up.
You can tell when a cat has detected another cat’s pheromones by their facial expression. If you notice that your cat is making weird mouth movements that look grimace-like, they’re likely smelling pheromones. This is because cats have a group of specialized pheromone receptors on the roof of their mouth known as the Jacobson’s organ. When opening their mouth, the pheromones bind to these receptors and tell your cat all its needs to know about where these pheromones came from and to whom they belong.
On the other hand, humans are not affected by cat pheromones, and so we cannot pick these scents and chemicals left behind. This is even true for people with a sensitive sense of smell. We simply don’t have the same specialized receptors, so we are unable to receive the same information.
Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces on Things?
Although pheromones don’t provide us with much information, the pheromones left behind from bunting communicate various things to cats.
Primarily, it is a way of marking territory. By rubbing its face on things, your cat is communicating with other cats that this vicinity belongs to them and is their territory, warning other felines to find somewhere else to go. However, they could also be indicating pleasure and affection. This all depends on the object that is being rubbed up against.
1. Marking Their Territory
When cats rub their faces on objects such as your couch or table, they are spreading their scent and claiming ownership of the object. This is them marking their territory to warn other cats that they have already claimed the vicinity. They are basically making their presence known.
Head-butting is not the only way in which cats mark their territory. Cats have glands that release pheromones between their paws, so scratching at surfaces also effectively marks territory. Unfortunately, it is also common to see a highly territorial cat spraying indoors. The urine contains pheromones, so this is another avenue for cats to exert their presence and ownership.
Because of this, cats are more likely to rub their faces everywhere and exhibit these other territorial behaviors when living in multi-cat households. While your cats may get along and happily laze around in each others’ “territories,” unbeknown to you, they probably do have an area of your house that is “theirs.” This has likely all been signaled by leaving pheromones behind.
Cats will also rub their head on things to try to cover up the scent of other cats, which further explains why this behavior is more common if you have more than one cat. Similarly, if you have unknown guests in your home, your cat may rub their face on things more once they have left to mask their scent.
2. Family Bonding
Cats may also be rubbing their head on other animals or people to form strong family bonds. This would have started with big cats in the wild from when mother cats nursed and cleaned their young, but this behavior trickled down to persist in domesticated cats.
By rubbing their heads on other cats, they are transferring their pheromones onto other cats in their pack, marking them as one so that the group all smell the same. Therefore, if your cat rubs their head up against you, it likely considers you family and a member of its pack.
It is the job of the dominant cat to spread the family scent and initiate the bonding. This can even extend to other bonding behaviors such as grooming, serving both as a sign of trust and forming social bonds. Both domesticated and wild cats can exhibit this behavior, and it is a great sign that your cat feels comfortable and content within your presence.
3. A Show of Affection
Because cats only headbutt other cats that are part of their pack, bunting is seen as an affectionate behavior. As it is key to their familial bonding, they are effectively saying “I love you” by rubbing their head against you.
There are many ways that cats can communicate affection through physical touch. Cats may initially show appreciation by touching their noses on you, which is comparable to two people shaking hands. However, rubbing their head against you shows higher levels of affection, like two people having a hug or a kiss.
When cats rub their head against another cat to communicate affection, the other cat will rub back to show they reciprocate the feeling. Therefore, to make your cat feel loved back, be sure to respond to their headbutting.
Try scratching their favorite spots, be that their chin, their forehead, or their tummy. You will be able to tell if your cat appreciates the gesture as to whether they leave or continue to act affectionately. Keep on trying different approaches until they seem content with your response.
You may already know that cats only meow when trying to communicate with humans. However, this is not their only way of communicating with us, and they could also be making a request when bunting. They’re master manipulators and know a cute nudge with their heads will win all our attention!
By rubbing their head against you, your cat could be after some attention. What they are after could be anything! They may want you to pet them, to give them a treat, or to play with them, so just see what your cat responds to figure out what they are trying to ask for.
If your cat is communicating with you by headbutting, this is likely a good sign. Cats will only rub their head against you if they are content, so while they would perhaps like a belly scratch, there is nothing substantial missing from their lives. Overall, they are happy and comfortable.
5. Looking for a Mate
If your cat is rubbing excessively on objects around your home, they may be trying to signal that they are ready to mate. This mainly applies to female cats. They’re leaving pheromones everywhere to try and attract a potential suitor. Male cats go into heat once they reach sexual maturity at around five months and then respond instinctively to females in heat.
When female cats are in heat, they rub against things more often than usual to spread their scent. The scent of a female cat in heat differs from when they are not fertile, so this advertises her availability to any male cats in the vicinity. She is trying to let all the tomcats know she is after a sire.
This bunting behavior will also be accompanied by several other common signs, notably a loud yowling call to attract nearby males. Therefore, if your cat keeps meowing and rubbing against everything, they are likely seeking a mate! Other common signs are excessively licking her genitals or frequently presenting herself in a mating position with her rear in the air.
You can usually tell if their head-butting is a means of finding a mate as there will be a sudden increase in its bunting and overall affectionate behavior, besides the signs of heat I’ve just mentioned. However, if your cat has been spayed, this will not be why she is rubbing her face on things, and she will be trying to communicate something else instead.
6. Picking Up Information
Cats are naturally curious creatures and love to explore the world around them, discovering as much as possible about their surroundings. Therefore, it is also possible that cats rub their faces against things to find out more about them.
For example, if a new person visits your home, your cat may brush up against them to pick up their scent. From this, your cat will be able to tell a little more about the intruder, such as if they have pets of their own. Their sense of smell is fifteen times stronger than ours, so they can gather a lot of information from the scent.
However, if your cat is rubbing against you, they probably already know all about you. In this case, they are instead trying to show affection or to get your attention.
7. To Calm Themselves Down
While it may be more common for felines in a multi-cat household to rub their heads on objects, solo cats will still exhibit this behavior. If they can smell their own pheromones, then they feel safe, comfortable, and protected and can relax knowing that this space is theirs.
A little head-butting is therefore expected. But if you see your cat rubbing its face everywhere, it could feel stressed. It uses pheromones as a coping mechanism as it struggles to deal with something in its environment. Other signs of stress include:
- Becoming more withdrawn and hiding more than usual
- Overeating or entirely losing its appetite
- Excessively meowing
- Being less tolerant of people or more aggressive
- Showing a reluctance to use the litter tray
Cats are highly sensitive creatures, and tiny changes to their environment or routine can make them anxious. Examples include rearranging the furniture, having an unfamiliar guest over, or seeing a new cat in the neighborhood. Loud noises, new household pets, or changes to their regular feeding schedule are other everyday stressors for cats.
If you can remove the stressor, I suggest doing so. This will help your cat relax and feel more content. However, this isn’t always possible! If this is the case, one trick I like to use is calming collars. Calming collars work for cats with anxiety by releasing artificial pheromones into their environment. These induce the same calming effect as natural pheromones and help your cat relax.
8. To Pick Up Scent
The current reasons I have provides as to why cats rub their faces on things assume your cat is trying to transfer scent onto the object or person. However, there is a chance your cat is trying to pick up a smell instead. It is rare for cats to try and pick up scents from objects but picking up odors from people and other animals is a real possibility.
If your cat is rubbing against you, it could be putting your scent onto its fur. This is a sure sign of affection – your cat loves you so much that it wants to smell like you! Your kitty is essentially wearing your odors as a cologne. In doing so, it communicates to all other cats that it belongs to you. She’s clearly a very proud kitty who wants to show you off to the world!
Cats will also rub against each other to pick up scents. This is again a sign of love and affection, and your cat will only seek out another cat’s scent it likes and trusts. It is common for cats living together to experience conflict, so you should feel proud if your cats are rubbing together. They must be very happy in a multi-cat household, so give yourself a pat on the back.
Where Do Cats Rub Their Faces?
Scent communication in cats is complex. As I have mentioned, bunting behavior can be a cat’s way of trying to communicate several different messages. They might be marking their territory, showing affection, coping with stress, or looking for a mate. So, how can you tell what it means when a cat rubs its face on things?
As an owner, pay attention to where your cat is rubbing their face. Where cats rub their faces tells you a lot about what they are trying to communicate, giving us a better understanding of what our felines are trying to say.
Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces on Corners?
If you notice your cat rubbing on corners – be that the corner of a room that sticks out, the corner of your bookcase, or even the corner of a cardboard box – they are likely marking their territory.
To us, rubbing up against a sharp corner may look uncomfortable, but to cats, corners are an ideal place to leave their pheromones. The sharp edge of a corner makes it easier for your cat to deposit their scent on it as they can scratch deep into their sweat glands that produce pheromones. And the more effective the object, the better!
Your cat may also choose to rub on a sharp corner instead of a flat surface because it feels better. Cats like their faces being rubbed, and the sharper and harder the object they press against, the deeper the scratch. If a cat can mark their territory and make itself feel good at the same time, then why not?
This is totally normal behavior, so leave your cat to it. The only time you should stop your cat from bunting is if it is rubbing against a really sharp object that it could hurt itself on. Try moving this object out of reach or sanding down extremely sharp edges to keep your cat safe. You might need to call your vet if it’s too late and your cat is already injured. Minor scratches will heal on their own, but a professional veterinarian should assess any deep cuts or damage to the delicate eye area.
Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces On My Feet?
If your cat is rubbing their face and head against your feet, ankles, and legs, they are likely trying to tell you that they love you and are glad you’re there. Often, they will finish rubbing your legs by looking up at you and purring, and sometimes reaching up your legs with their paws.
This is a sign of affection and a friendly greeting. They would appreciate it if you bent down and stroked them to show them just how much you love them too! If your cat tries to rub their face against your hand, this is a definite sign that they are saying how much they love you. Treat them to a scratch to reciprocate the feeling, like how other cats would respond in the wild.
There is also a chance that your cat is begging for your attention. When you bend down to pet your cat, does it run away? If so, follow your cat and see where it wants to take you. You might discover it has an empty food or water bowl or a dirty litter tray. Respond to your cat’s needs, ensuring they always have access to all their essentials.
Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces on Laptops?
You may have noticed that out of all the items in your home, your cat loves rubbing its head against your laptop. Whenever I sit with my laptop in front of me, my cat will appear and start nudging the corners, sometimes even walking across the keypad and in front of the screen.
So, why laptops? In most cases, this is your cat asking for your attention. They may be a little jealous that you are staring at a screen and clicking away rather than playing with them or giving them a scratch. Cats are also curious, so they may be trying to figure out what is so important that it is taking your attention away from them!
If your cat rubs their face on your laptop, try giving them a pet or speaking to them to let them know you are still there for them. Do you even need to be on your laptop right now? Have you shown your kitty enough attention today? Why not put the computer away and get out some of your cat’s toys instead? Your cat will appreciate it, and it’s a great way to strengthen your bond.
Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces Everywhere?
If your cat is rubbing their face everywhere – on your couch, coffee table, bookcase, doorframes, walls, and everything in between – your cat will either be marking their territory or looking for a mate.
Many owners have had their cats spayed, in which case their rubbing is a sign of territory marking using scent. If they can smell their own pheromones around your home, it will make them feel comforted and content. For your cat to feel contented is exactly what you want as an owner, so I suggest you let them get on with it. Besides, preventing your cat from marking using their faces can result in them taking other measures, such as scratching and spraying! These are two destructive behaviors you’re best off avoiding.
You may notice that cats rub their faces everywhere more after you have just cleaned your home. By cleaning, you may have removed all of their pheromones that were previously there, so they need to reclaim the area. When you move to a new home, your cat will also rub its head against everything for the same reason.
However, if you have a female cat that has not been spayed and they have suddenly started rubbing their head everywhere and anywhere, they are likely looking for a mate. This is easy to spot as it will be accompanied by several other signs, such as being excessively vocal.
Why Do Cats Rub Their Faces Against Each Other?
If you have more than one cat, you have probably noticed your cats rubbing their heads against each other. This is a friendly greeting and is a sign of your cats bonding and getting along. They view each other as family! It is also a way for them to transfer scents to each other, creating a single family scent that helps them to identify as a pack.
You may also notice your cat rubbing its head against other pets, such as a dog. This is again a positive sign and shows that your cat has identified the animal as a member of their household, even if your dog appears not to understand the gesture!
How Should I Respond to Head Bunting?
When your cat rubs its head against objects around your home, you can just leave them to it. But what about when they headbutt you? How should you respond? Do they want you to headbutt them back?
The answer to these questions all depends on the reason behind your cat’s headbutts. However, it can be difficult to tell what your cat is thinking, so always let your cat decide what happens next after a headbutt. You could present your forehead for them to rub back against if they wish or a still hand from them to brush up against. This shows you’re thankful but gives them control over what happens next.
If you don’t want to headbutt your cat back, no problem! Giving them a scratch under their chin, behind their ears, or on top of their head is an equally good response. They don’t need a headbutt back to feel loved and are aware that both you and they speak a different language.
Never try to initiate head bunting yourself, even if your cat has rubbed up against your face before. Having your face up close and personal can be seen as a sign of aggression and will have the opposite effect you’re hoping for. Even if you both have a strong bond, always wait for your cat to come to you.
Why Does My Cat Not Headbutt Me?
Do you have a cat that doesn’t rub its head on you? If so, you may be worried that your cat doesn’t love you. However, just like people, cats have different ways of showing affection to their owners, and they simply may not like to show their appreciation through headbutting.
Thankfully, there are several other ways that your cat can show affection, so look out for these other signs for some reassurance that your feline does love you:
- Grooming You: Many cats will groom other cats in their pack as a bonding activity, similar to how headbutting helps form social bonds. If your cat grooms or licks you, it’s a sure sign that they accept you as part of their family.
- Slow Blinking: Eye contact is also a great way for cats to communicate, and if they stare at you and blink slowly, they are trying to tell you that they love you. Return the favor and blink your eyes slowly while staring at your kitty – they’ll know this gesture means you love them.
- Kneading: Kittens have to knead their mothers while nursing to get milk. If next time you stroke your cat, it starts kneading you, they are saying that they love and trust you as much as their mother. It doesn’t get any better than that!
- Rubbing Their Body Against You: Although cats’ heads have the most sweat glands – meaning headbutting transfers the most smell onto you – if your cat rubs their body against you, they are still spreading scent and showing love as with bunting.
- Following You: Does your cat follow you around the house even when you’re not feeding them? If so, your cat is following you around because they love being with you! They want to get as much quality time with you as possible and hugely enjoy your company.
- Belly Rubs: When cats lie on their backs and expose their belly, they are at their most vulnerable. In the wild, this position would put cats at a disadvantage against predators. Therefore, if your cat rolls onto its back and lets you rub its belly, this is a huge sign of trust.
- Napping Near You: As with enjoying belly rubs, if your cat naps near you, this is again a sign of trust and affection. They trust you to watch over them as they sleep and want to curl up with you – aww! My cat sleeps on my chest, which is the ultimate sign of love and trust.
- Bringing “Gifts”: Does your cat regularly bring you home dead mice or birds? I know receiving these dead animals through the cat flap is not particularly pleasant! However, it is a sign of love. Your cat thinks it is bringing you back a gift from the garden as a token of its appreciation.
- Purring: Purring is another good indication that your cat enjoys your company. Cats purr when they are happy and content, and purring in response to your petting is a true sign of affection. Just make sure you know your cat’s limits to avoid overstimulation.
Once you start paying attention to your cat, you will realize that they do love you, each one just has its own way of expressing these feelings. Over time, your cat may also rub their head against you as they feel more at ease and form stronger bonds, so be patient.
Where Did Head Bunting Come From?
Heading bunting is a natural behavior that starts when cats are just kittens. They rub and knead on their mother to seek attention, and the mother will rub and lick her kittens to groom them.
This behavior then carries on throughout cats’ lives as the primary source of interacting with other cats, greeting family members when they return to the pack, showing their affection towards one another, and social bonding.
Both wild and domesticated cats rub their head against things, as do big cats and other felines. Lions are one of the most prominent examples, where head bunting is often seen when a lion returns to the pride following a hunt and is greeted by the other lions in the pack.
Therefore, although bunting does become essential in marking territory as cats get older, bunting typically starts in the young as a way to bond and form groups.
What Is The Difference Between Head Bunting & Head Pressing?
Some owners get confused between head bunting and head pressing. Head bunting is where your cat rubs up against an object in an affectionate way. Conversely, head pressing is where a cat pushes its head against an object, such as a door or wall.
Unlike bunting, head pressing is a cause for concern. Keep reading to discover more about what this could mean and how to tell the difference.
Why Do Cats Press Their Heads Against Things?
Head pressing is not a good sign!
Rather than signaling a sign of affection, head pressing for no apparent reason signals that your cat has damage to its nervous system. It indicates they are in a lot of pain and is similar to how we may push on our temples if we have a terrible headache.
If you notice your cat pressing its head against things, you must take them to the vet immediately. Make sure to note any other unusual symptoms too, such as pacing or circling, having seizures, or other unusual behaviors. This will help your vet with their diagnosis.
Some of the most common problems that cause head pressing include toxic poisoning, tumors either in the brain or elsewhere in your cat’s body, or an infection of the nervous system such as rabies. Trauma can also cause head pressing, such as if your cat was in a car accident. Prosencephalon disease is another option which is where there is damage to your cat’s forebrain.
These are all serious conditions, so the correct treatment and care are essential for a full recovery. The following steps will depend on the diagnosis of the underlying condition causing head pressing, so visit the vet and follow whatever treatment, follow-up, and home care they recommend.
Is My Cat Head Bunting Or Head Pressing?
As a cat owner, you obviously want to be able to tell the difference between headbutting and head pressing so that you can take your feline to the vet if needed. Thankfully, it is pretty easy to tell the difference.
Is your cat rubbing its head against you and other objects? Do they seem happy when you respond by scratching them? Are they purring or showing other signs of affection too? If you answered yes to these questions, your cat is headbutting, which is healthy and expected behavior.
Is your cat continuously pressing its head against an object without rubbing? Are they pressing against a hard surface such as a wall or doorframe? Are they showing other signs of pain, such as wincing? If so, your cat is head pressing which needs immediate medical advice.
If your cat is pressing rather than bunting, it will also often exhibit other symptoms. This could be changes to trained behavior such as them not using their litter box, as well as compulsive pacing, seizures, or visual problems.
So, why do cats rub their faces on things? They are simply communicating through their scent, displaying affection, forming family bonds, marking their territory, or even signaling that they are ready to mate. Do watch out that your cat is not head pressing though, as this is a bad sign that needs medical attention.
Always pay attention to what object your cat is rubbing their face against and what else is happening to determine what they are saying. Are they brushing up against your couch after a guest has gone? They’re reclaiming their space. Are they purring and rubbing against you? They love you!
Bunting is undoubtedly one of the cutest and most endearing cat behaviors, so let them get on with it. Next time your cat headbutts you or rubs its face against your feet, respond with a scratch and watch the two of you bond even closer!