To the outside world, cats appear standoffish, short-fused, and lonesome. But on the rare occasion your kitty flees her hideaway to socialize, she does something seemingly sweet: Rubs her cheek on everything. It’s not itchy skin or fleas — so why do cats rub their faces on things?
Cats rub their faces on things because of the scent glands on their faces. By depositing their unique scents, cats can leave behind a chemical message that alerts other cats of their presence (‘This is my territory. Stay away.’). Cats may also ‘bunt’ against humans as a sign of love and affection.
It’s certainly a bizarre sight when your cat rubs her face on your leg, the door frame, or the TV stand. The true explanation comes down to feline instincts and affection. To learn about why cats rub their faces on things, read on!
Feline Scent Glands: What, Where, and Why?
To understand why a cat rubs its face against household objects, you need to learn about feline scent glands. Scattered from a cat’s nose to tail are pheromone-releasing scent glands that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
All cats have distinct pheromones (scents) that send chemical messages to other cats to mimic a ‘timestamp’ or mark their physical location. For example, a female cat may deposit her scent in a garden (with urine) to let nearby tomcats know she’s in heat. Or a territorial male cat might rub his face on a fence post to claim his stake and fend off intruders.
A domestic cat stores these pheromones in scent glands located:
- On the ear flaps
- In the temples
- On the cheeks
- At the corners of the mouth
- Beneath the jaw
- In between the toes
- Surrounding the anus
- Along the length of the tail
- At the base of the tail
In other words, this face-rubbing motion (bunting) activates five of the nine scent glands. And by intentionally depositing their scents around the house or in the yard, this chemical message loosely translates to, ‘I was here’ or ‘This is mine.’
If you want a quick answer, the video below will explain this odd behavior much more briefly. Hint: It might be the same reason cats leave urine trails in the house (spraying):
How Face-Rubbing (or Bunting) Works
If you spend 24 hours observing a cat, you’ll notice that this face-rubbing behavior seemingly knows no bounds. This pheromone-depositing routine follows a similar pattern.
The process begins with a sniff test. Kitties have a powerful sense of smell that outshines humans’ by over 1400%. A cat will deeply inhale an object first to detect other lingering scents, either discovering whether her scent is fading or if another cat came by recently. In both instances, a kitty will ‘reapply’ her pheromones to strengthen the signal before leaving.
The cat will then rub her cheek, mouth, and forehead against the object to release her pheromones and widen her territory’s perimeter. Cats can ‘claim’ any item they can rub against comfortably, including:
- Corners (desks, sofas, walls, doors, tables, chairs, etc.)
- Shoes, clothing, or clean laundry
- People (hands, feet, legs, etc.)
- Prized possessions like blankets or bedding
- Brand new items (to claim dibs)
- Outdoor objects (hoses, sheds, garages, house siding, trees, etc.)
Because a kitty’s distinct scent evades our noses, we’ll never honestly know the extent of these scent-marking instincts. The question is more likely, ‘What hasn’t your cat claimed?’ Ideally, most of this marking will fly under your radar (i.e., Not spraying).
Why Cats Rub Their Faces on Things
The primary goal behind cats rubbing their faces on things is to deposit their unique scents. Yet, the special message a cat’s sending by bunting can vary. Your cat may aggressively rub her face against the bed frame, shed door, or laundry basket because:
Cats will regularly mark these boundaries by peeing, pooping, scratching, or rubbing along the perimeter to maintain a strong scent detectable by other cats. Neutering and spaying a cat will weaken the desire to spray by leaving an overpowering urine scent.
But cats never entirely lose this territorial instinct, with many relying on face-rubbing to claim territory within the home. A cat may rub her face against the fence or doorways to send a special message to other nearby felines: This is mine!
Sign of Love & Affection
Cats show love and affection in seemingly mysterious ways — slow blinking, purring, licking, weaving between your feet, and even trilling. When you’re the object of your kitty’s bunting, this scent-marking message takes on a brand new translation: I love you!
An adoring kitty may rub against your leg or outstretched arm to:
- Greet you (‘Hey! Remember me?’)
- Ask you for attention (‘Please pet me!’)
- Claim you as their own (‘You’re mine now!’)
The exact message depends on a cat’s personality and love language. For example, a cat rubbing her face against your knee isn’t always inviting you to scratch her ears. Therefore, learning how your cat communicates can help you better understand why she rubs against you and further strengthens your bond.
In the wild, a cat venturing into another cat’s territory is pressing her luck and risking safety, even if she’s just innocently exploring the neighborhood as she always does. A tomcat will see any invading kitty as a threat to his hunting and sleeping grounds. These misguided adventures may leave a curious kitty fighting for her life as she retreats to her ‘home range.’
Cats recognize their own scent and see it as a safe haven, free from other cats who threaten their very existence. Leaving their pheromones on a sofa, desk, or window sill can provide a comforting scent with an air of familiarity.
In other words, bunting may serve as a makeshift feline confidence-booster and a trusty anxiety-reducer. Cats won’t feel like strangers in their own homes, and they can let their guard down to enjoy being in your company.
A cat will spread her scent periodically throughout the day — as she licks her food bowl, kneads her favorite pillow, rubs against the sofa, or positions her butt against your leg. But multi-cat households and outdoor colonies trigger competing pheromone overlap.
While a lesser-known tactic, some cats rub their faces on objects to track how often cats come and go. For example, a cat may rub her cheek against a garage door handle. If the cat returns six hours later and notices another cat’s scent now overpowers hers, she’ll know that other cats are actively roaming the area.
This tracking bonus serves as a safety measure. A nervous cat can flee the area when aggressive cats are hiding in wait. Or remain on ‘high alert’ until the threat disappears.
Face rubbing is on the less aggressive end of the territorial spectrum. It’s no different than your kitty kneading her paws on your chest before lulling herself to sleep. Or weaving between your legs after you return home from work.
However, it’s important to intervene when these instincts take on more destructive forms, like:
- Spraying (urinating in the home)
- Attacking other cats
- Swatting, hissing, and growling
- Intimidating or stalking other kitties
A pheromone diffuser, proper conflict resolution (i.e., Not yelling or hitting your cat), and neutering can all limit these behaviors and return harmony to your household.
- The Humane Society of the United States: What to do if your cat is marking territory
- Fetch by WebMD: Pet Pheromone Products for Behavior Problems: Do They Work?
- Wikipedia: Cat pheromone
- Illinois News Bureau: Researchers track the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.