What Does It Mean When A Cat Rubs Against You? Is It Good or Bad?

If you’re a cat owner, you’ve likely wondered why cats rub against one person but not another. Your fluffy companion might greet you at the door and rub against your legs, but be aloof when your partner or friend enters through the same door.

Why do they do this? What does it mean when a cat rubs against you? Are they fishing for affection or coaxing you for a treat? The answer is very simple. You are family! But how does it work?

If you’d like to know more about the science behind your cat’s love-language, keep reading. Cats are very interesting and friendly creatures, and knowing why they have certain quirks will help us to understand them just a little bit better.

ginger cat against person wearing jeans in snow

What Does It Mean When A Cat Rubs Against You – How Cats Communicate Using Different Senses

Cats have different ways of communicating with each other and with humans, and not all domesticated cats exhibit the same methods of communication. But here are the primary ways in which your cat tries to correspond with you using different senses.

  • Visual communication – They might curl or wag their tail, lower their ears or widen their eyes
  • Vocal communication – They will meow, growl, purr– or even hiss at you
  • Tactical (touch) communication – They might cuddle, knead, groom, headbutt or scratch and bite you
  • Olfactory (smell) communication – They will discharge their pheromones in and around their space to mark their territory. This keeps away predators and creates a barrier around their possessions. You might not notice this one, but it’s very important to your cat.
grey cat against legs of man in brown shoes

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The Science of it All – Olfactory Sense

Our feline roommates rely heavily on scent for communication, and this type of physical contact stimulates their pheromone glands. Pheromones create unique scents produced by individual cats which they use for marking territory and correspondence.

grey and white cat sniffs leaves

These glands are situated in certain areas of the body – like behind the ears, and on the paws and forehead. If your cat decides to rub these areas against your body, it means that they are marking you as familiar to them – which is a very good sign.

Cats tend to rub against each other or against other members of the pet family as well. This is purely an indication that they recognize them as a part of the pack and that they have some kind of relationship.

Red Cat rubs head against dog in the yard what does it mean when a cat rubs against you

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The effect of this pheromonal exchange can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks.

Reasons Why Your Cat Would Rub Against You

As mentioned above, our furry felines use pheromones for communication, but what they intend to communicate might not always be love and positivity.

grey cat against legs wearing jeans and stripey socks

Here’s a list of reasons why your cat is rubbing against you, and how to tell the difference in intention.

1. Family Scent Exchange

Keeping the family unified is a job that our cats take very personally. The scent exchange is a way to indicate that your cat is marking an object or a person as part of the unit.

When a cat rubs on us, our first reaction is to pet the furry friend back. This fuels their fire and shows them that we are taking part in the “scent exchange ceremony”.

tabby cat against person's legs in the snow with

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They think that we are marking them back and telling them that we are appreciating our position within the family bond that they have created – which is true.

2. Marking Inanimate Objects

You may have seen your cat rubbing itself on a new pair of shoes or a new house plant before. They will do this to mark that object as a recognized part of their territory.

Putting their unique pheromonal scent on strange objects is their way of including said object into their space of the household. It also warns other cats that this space is taken and protected.

Cat rubs the hand

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3. Your Cat Is Yelling At You

Teaching your cat not to scratch or bite is an important chapter of the cat parenting manual they all so thoughtfully come with – ha ha. But, this might be stripping away their ability to communicate frustration or aggression.

Luckily, cats have learned how to show those feelings in the best and most sensitive way available to them. If your feline friend is erratically rubbing up against you and seems to be more forceful than normal, they might be actually yelling at you.

Gray stray fluffy cat rubs rubs against the legs of a man

Cats tend to use this manner of communication to indicate to their cat parents that they are feeling angry, misunderstood, or even sad.

Next time when your cat is rubbing up against you, pay close attention to their body language. You might be surprised.

4. This is My Space

Domesticated felines come from a long lineage of feral cats. They have only become domestic pets about 10 000 years ago. And our household furballs still share some traits with their wild ancestors – like territorial marking.

Cats may share spaces in close proximity to one another, and keeping the pheromonal territory up-to-date is a full-time job. They use their unique scent to set boundaries for one another, whether it be on a human or on an area or object.

Hungry cat rubs against the legs of a passerby. Street cat at hi

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To other feline neighbors, these scents reveal a lot, like Kitty Twitter. They can tell the readiness for mating, aggression, possessiveness, and both the mental and physical health of the other cat.

This will help them navigate their way around the area and also the hierarchy of the feline community.

ginger cat rubs against person's legs

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5. Showin’ Some Lovin’

Not everything in the feline queendom is strategic, however. Sometimes our cats just need to show their affection and gratitude towards us. But different kinds of physical touch can mean different things to the feline.

ginger cat rubbing past boots

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a. Tail Wraps Around Your Leg

If a cat is rubbing up against your leg and suddenly their tail coils around, you are experiencing the closest we will ever come to a hug. This is a very common way for the cat to show their affection.

It’s the human equivalent of throwing your arms around a friend.

dark cat arches back and rubs against human legs

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b. Headbutt

If your feline friend pressed their head up against yours, in any manner, they’re showing you the ultimate sign of affection or closeness. Headbutting is the human equivalent of yelling “I love you” to someone’s face.

Cats may only do this with a select posse of humans, so feel honored if you have become the chosen one.

black cat rubs against man's legs

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c. You Have Something That I Want

If your furry roommate rubs up against you, they may also be looking for affection or cuddles. But, your cat has very interesting ways of showing their needs, including rubbing up against a door (Let me out), or rubbing up against the kitchen cabinets (Gimme a snack, man).

However, if a strange cat rubs against you, they might only be saying hello. Don’t try to over-pet or pick up the cat. He is simply welcoming you into their space.

woman with eyes closed curled up with sleepy cat on bed

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A Conclusion To Why Your Cat Rubs Against You

Cats have a very unique way of using smells to communicate. They have a sympathetic olfactory sense and they tend to rely heavily on it in order to survive. Cats use scent in the same way that humans use physical barriers.

We tend to oversimplify the feline body language, immediately pinning it as a sign of affection that should be reciprocated. But, this can lead up to a cat being misunderstood and their needs being neglected in the process.

Young beautiful woman kissing cat with love at home.

Try to reposition yourself away from an automatic anthropogenic response to your cats’ behavior, and rather aim to fully understand their intentions. This will help you to forge a stronger bond with your feline friends and aid in better communication in the future.

Enjoy all the rubbing and petting, but remember to be on the lookout for the small changes in body language that may indicate that they need more than just attention.

teen pretty girl kiss black cat close up portrait

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what does it mean when a cat headbutts you - ginger cat snugglin

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