Whenever Persephone begs for attention she jumps into my lap and rubs her face against my hands. Then she’ll rub her face against my shirt, my pants, the edge of the kitchen table, anything and everything within reach of her cheeks.
What starts off gentle enough turns into a headbutt (or head bunting) if I don’t start scratching behind her left ear.
By the end I’m covered in cat hair, and Persephone is purring with delight as I massage her forehead.
Her daily morning behavior has lead me to answer a question I’ve been asking for a long time…
Why do cats rub their face on Things?
Cats are covered in scent glands.
In a way they’re one big four-legged scent gland. When they snuggle up next to you on the couch and rub themselves they’re dousing you in their scent—a sprinkler of kitty smells.
To be professional lets point out that you can find scent glands on your cat’s…
- Paw pads,
- Sides of the mouth,
- Base of the tail,
- And one on each side of the anus.
When cats rub themselves against something they’re leaving behind pheromones, basically a means of olfactory (smell) communication.
In her extremely helpful book CatWise, Pam Johnson-Bennett writes, “Scent is used to identify members of the same colony, define territory, create familiarity, announce sexual readiness, learn more about unfamiliar cats in the environment, self-soother, bond with another, or threaten.”
How cats leave their scent (from what gland) determines what type of communication your cat is after.
Head Rubbing Communication
When a cat steps up to the corner of the kitchen table and rubs their head they’re leaving behind their scent. As you may have noticed, cats tend to rub against highly visible objects. Whatever juts out—Amazon box or otherwise—a cat is going to rub against it.
Depending on how tall the object is a cat will use a different part of their head:
- The highest objects get rubbed by heads and ears.
- Head-height objects warrant the spittle swipe: wiping from mouth to ear.
- The lowest objects are typically rubbed with the chin and throat.
What’s going on here?
Cats use their faces to rub comforting objects (including you). Basically, the face leaves a friendly scent. It means, ““Hey I know this human. I like this human. I’m going to rub up against this human.” Or box, or cat tree, or whatever.
When your cat rubs their face on you it means they’re bonding. You’re both familiar and safe to them. That’s a relief!
They also know they’ll probably get their back scratched out of it.
That’s not all though. When cats bump heads they’re not only leaving their scent behind, they’re picking up your scent (or whatever it is they’re bunting) as well.
There’s a mutual communication going on, even if our puny human noses can’t pick out the smell.
Pay Attention to Me!
Of course it’s not all family recognition.
Cats also bump their heads when they want your attention—as Persephone does, or Miles when his belly can’t wait another minute to be fed.
This is typically how it works with our cats.
Bumping heads has gone from being about familiarizing scents, to making demands.
Using Friendly Cat Scents
If your cat distrusts some object in your house ( maybe it’s a cat carrier) take a sock and rub your cat’s cheeks with the sock (a clean sock). Then rub the object.
Afterwards, the object, whatever it may be, will smell familiar and your cat should be less hostile towards it.
This might not work every time. But it’s worth a shot if you have an especially reluctant kitty.
Next time your kitty plops his face in front of yours take it as an act of total trust; head bunting in cats is exclusively for friends and family.
You could even call it love, if you’re inclined. I like to think so.
Does your cat rub their faces on you (and everything else)?