Why Does Your Cat Rub Their Head On You?

Your cat’s gentle headrubs are an important part of their social behaviour.

Cats have a special relationship with their owner, as shown by this cat on a woman's lap, hands and paws on the table
Photo: Marie-Claude Lemay/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Get Companion Animal Psychology in your inbox.

Most people are flattered when their cat rubs their head on their legs when they come home from being out. After all, it shows the cat is paying attention to you. You should be delighted to see this behaviour which is essentially a sign of friendship and that your cat sees you as part of their social group. 

When your cat headbutts you with their forehead, it’s called bunting. When your cat rubs their head and cheeks, and maybe continues to rub their side and even tail against you or another cat, this is called allorubbing. 

Sometimes the word bunting is used to mean head rubbing on objects (as distinguished from allorubbing on cats, people, or other animals), but the more general use of the word seems to include rubbing on people too. 


Why do cats bunt and allorub?

When cats rub their head and body against another cat, it is both a tactile experience (the feeling of being rubbed) and an olfactory one. 

Cats have scent glands around their head, and when they rub on things, people, or other cats, they are depositing pheromones (chemical signals with meaning).  

The pheromones that are deposited by head-rubbing are believed to play an important role in feline social behaviour. Five different pheromones are known to be secreted by the glands in cats’ cheeks (Shreve and Udell, 2017). While we don’t fully understand them yet, we know that the F3 and F4 pheromones seem to be involved in marking of an affiliative nature.

Cats often leave the F3 pheromone behind when they rub on things, such as furniture or walls in the home. It’s believed this helps them to feel safe and know that they are on their home territory. 

When cats rub on each other or you, they are marking with the F4 pheromone. 

Allorubbing between feral cats sometimes lasts for several minutes and is often accompanied by purring (Crowell-Davis et al., 2004). It’s believed that the transfer of scent that takes place helps to build up a ‘colony odour’ or group scent which shows that the cats are part of the same social group.

Two ginger-and-white cats rub their bodies and tails together
Photo: ClementKANJ/Shutterstock


What is allogrooming?

Allogrooming is also a social behaviour between cats. It involves one cat grooming another cat, typically around the head in places that are not so easy for the cat to lick themself. 

Sometimes the cat being groomed is very cooperative, moving their head to make it easier for the other cat to lick them on the head and neck. Other times, it may seem more like the other cat is pinning them down while they groom them. 

So allogrooming often seems to be a friendly behaviour, but sometimes there is some tension involved. The cat being groomed is usually on the bottom, and sometimes they are even pinned down by the cat doing the grooming. Maybe in those cases allogrooming works to defuse the tension.

Allogrooming is more common amongst cats who have grown up together and are related, and it also seems that cats who have lived together for longer are more likely to allogroom (Finka 2022). 

When your cat licks you, it is similar to allogrooming between cats. 

One cat grooms another cat, called allogrooming
Photo: Chris Hill/Shutterstock


What about when we pet cats?

When scientists looked at how cats like to be petted they found that most prefer not to be petted around the base of the tail; they generally prefer to be petted around the head and neck.

Because of this, they suggested that when people pet their cat, it is more like allogrooming than allorubbing. However they say it’s also possible that the cats didn’t think the people were close enough (from a social perspective) to be allowed to pet them near the tail. 


Allorubbing is a friendly behaviour

Allorubbing is a sociable behaviour between cats who are part of the same social group—friends, in other words.

So when your cat rubs their head or body on you, it’s a sign that they consider you part of their social group.

The fact that this is an important greeting behaviour for cats is underlined by a recent study in which more than 80% of cats rubbed on their person when they were reunited after a separation (Behnke et al 2021). 

So enjoy this lovely attention from your feline friend.

If you liked this post, check out my book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis, co-author of The Trainable Cat and Head of Cat Advocacy, International Cat Care says, “Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!”


Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:


References

Behnke, A. C., Vitale, K. R., & Udell, M. A. (2021). The effect of owner presence and scent on stress resilience in cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 243, 105444. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2021.105444

Crowell-Davis, S. L., Curtis, T. M., & Knowles, R. J. (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 6(1), 19-28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfms.2003.09.013 

Ellis, S. L. H., Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, H. E. (2015). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat's response to being stroked. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 173, 60-67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002

Finka, L. R. (2022). Conspecific and Human Sociality in the Domestic Cat: Consideration of Proximate Mechanisms, Human Selection and Implications for Cat Welfare. Animals, 12(3), 298. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12030298

Shreve, K. R. V., & Udell, M. A. (2017). Stress, security, and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 187, 69-76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.11.011


As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate, Doggy Geeks University affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Support Companion Animal Psychology with a monthly or one-off donation via debit, credit, or Paypal