A lady asks:
“Why does my cat rub his face on my shoes? He also licks my boyfriend’s feet and armpits and sticks his head into smelly shoes, socks and underwear. The interesting thing is that he does it with anyone’s clothes and shoes, including visitors.”
This is today’s cat behavior question. This is a very common form of cat behavior. Although it varies between cats.
Here is a video of the fabulous Magic rubbing her cheeks against Martin’s shoes. This is a classic example of the behavior described in the question. Although the cat living with the lady who asks the question seems to have taken the behavior to the next level.
Please also have a look at the comments made by experienced cat caretakers (well most are, one isn’t).
It is all about scent and scent exchange. Cats place a lot more emphasis on smells than humans. I am sure we all know that. A cat checks out smells all the time. It is almost as if a cat is using scent as we use our eyes.
Cats like to reassure themselves by depositing their scent on objects. It creates an environment that feels more secure. They have scent glands on their cheeks. Rubbing their cheek along a shoe or your leg deposits his scent there. We can’t smell it, but for him it is a big deal.
Also in depositing scent, a cat is also collecting human scent onto himself. This is scent exchange. This is friendly behavior. Perhaps it is like the air kiss and cheek touch that Westerners are so fond of, or when the Māori people press their noses and foreheads together when greeting each other. The difference is that cats like to exchange body scent while people are quite squeamish about that sort of thing.
The lady’s cat has gone to extremes in diving into any smelly item of clothing and licking feet etc. In my opinion this is an extension of scent exchange described above. He likes these smells. They are familiar to him and he feels reassured. Licking people is also a form of “allogrooming” – grooming an associate as a friendly gesture. The surprising element is that he likes the smell of strangers too. But I suspect these people are not strangers.
I have a feeling that this boy cat is a little anxious. He is seeking reassurances over and above the normal level. I would suggest that attempts me made to assuage his insecurity though plenty of loving contact and play time.
It may also be the case that the owners are away quite a lot. He misses human contact and the contact of other cats if he had siblings from whom he is separated. Perhaps the judicious introduction of another cat for company will settle him down.
Any new cat/kitten should be introduced with great care to make sure the incumbent cat is not upset. People tend to assume that cats accept other cats while ignoring the fact that cats have likes and dislikes. Introducing a new cat can make things worse or certainly not necessarily improve matters.