Why Does My Cat Rub His Face On My Shoes?

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.

My Response

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.

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Why Does My Cat Rub His Face On My Shoes? — 26 Comments

  1. “It is almost as if a cat is using scent as we use our eyes.”
    That is it exactly Michael. Like we have a field of vision, cats have a field of scent. In rubbing up against us, head-bumps and grooming our cats are claiming us as part their brood. As Michael stated above, we eventually create a joint family smell that is created by our scent+their scent.

    The licking may be something a bit different, although Michael’s points are certainly valid. Cats instinctively know to hide strong scents, so as to keep away predators. This is why they cover their dung and sometimes, when they are fearful of another animal eating their food, they may try to cover it as well. I saw this behavior in Fluffy many times. Cats have scents glands that secrete an oil that they spread over themselves to hide their scent from predators. I wish I had a link to the BBC production on the Life of Cats that was shown here in the states on PBS. Learned so much about cat behavior I was always curious about. I have only been groomed by one cat. It was my skin and I was filthy from work. The stinky shoes may be triggering that scent-hiding instinct they have.

    Great article. This was fun. I miss Fluffy all the sudden. The sweet little old lady of a cat. Her meow barely above a whisper due to a raccoon that grabbed her by the throat when she was a kitten and shook her. Her big brothers/fathers saved her. She was maybe 12 lbs at her largest, but shrank down to maybe 5 lbs in her last days. She was feisty and mean to everyone but mom, had 4 litters of kittens, all on July 4th during our local firework show. She was mom’s best friend. ♥♥♥

    Yes, I’m on a new med. Best just get offline so I’ll shut up. 🙂

    • Thanks Dan for the extra information. Very useful. I believe that these cat behavior pages are useful for visitors and your comments assist a lot in creating a complete response.

  2. I think they like the smell more than anything. 2 of my cats do it and one of them even sleeps with her face in my shoe. When I take my shoes off they get excited and want to rub all over them and smell them. Its like a treat or something. They behave just the same way with my recently removed shoe as they do with a catnip cigar. They must like it.

    • They do like it. And that is a free standing fact as you say. I agree that. The reason why they like is because it gives them a sense of security and well being as it is your smell and you provide that security as a sort of surrogate mother. That is my theory anyway. I think the reason behind cats liking catnip is as a minor drug. It is a chemical thing. There may be a chemical thing going on with our scent as well.

  3. Monty likes to be petted with your foot and he does seem to like the stinky, right after work foot the best.
    I like it when I take Monty out and there is snow. I can see the tracks where creatures have walked through our yard. Monty doesn’t need snow to “see” who has been there. He sniffs. When it snows then I can see what so interests him .

  4. Cats are particularly interested in shoes that have been used because they have picked up foreign scents all day. They are trying to destroy any other animals’ scents to make sure that the only scents in its own territory are its own. You aren’t being “loved”, you are being marked as their territorial food-source. If someone else feeds them better that’s the last you’ll see of them. Their better supplier will now be marked with their territorial scent.

    Note: I have deleted large bits of this because it was plain rude. It is written by one of those cat haters I am afraid but I have published it to show people what other people think.

    • OK Mr Moron, tell us where you got this information from:

      “you are being marked as their territorial food-source”

      Because I have never read that anywhere and believe me I have read a lot about cats.

      When and if you answer it must be polite or you won’t get a chance to answer. And who said anything about being “loved” other than you? You are incredibly tedious.

      • Of course you haven’t read that anywhere. Though it is documented in thousands of places. The world-renowned “Nature” series even did a documentary on how cats are only using humans for their food-source and shelter. Manipulating you just as you’ve proved they do for their own survival purposes, not yours.

        And I’ve no doubt you’ve read plenty about cats. The trouble is, the only thing you’ve ever read about cats is what you write about them.

        Note: I have deleted a substantial part of this because it is off-topic and rude. – Michael (Admin).

        • You still cannot provide a reference from a reliable source to support your comment. Provide the URL of a webpage. Let us see it. Show us something, anything. The domestication of cats was by mutual consent. Both parties benefited. That is documented fact. And you know it. It is nothing to do with cats manipulating gullible people. Please Mr Moron try and say something sensible.

    • Woody it looks like you are on another spree. I saw your comment on another site yesterday so I made a point of telling them about you and where you hail from. You are like serial terrorist anti cat commenter. Are you managing to get any enjoyment out of your miserable life? You aren’t gonna be around forever you know so you might try another hobby before all you can say is that you really hate cats, ….oh, and that you really hate cats. Did you know something Woody. A loser is somebody who loses. Sort of like you. You have completely lost your mind and you continue to lose your little war on cats. You have probably lost rather alot of things in your life. Being so angry about it and leaving comments around the interwebs isn’t really making you feel better though is it?

      Woody 0. Cats 1.

        • “according to authorities attacked a mother and daughter”.

          There is no doubt in my mind that this is a case of people inside the house attacking the cat and the cat defending itself. Although, we don’t know what happened for sure. Feral cats run from people if they can. When trapped they are forced to fight back. That is it.

          • Oh, and idiot michael, when YOU become a responsible and respectful person….(I deleted the rest as it was impolite and plain rude as usual – Admin)

            Response: I am responsible and very respectful of people, cats and wildlife. I am very surprised you have not grasped that. Everything I write sends that message.

            I am also surprised that you have not agreed with me on cat enclosures for instance. Isn’t that something you approve of? Why don’t you try and write a nice comment on this page (I know it is very hard for you write something polite and nice):


            I am afraid you are far too angry and hostile for anyone to be able to communicate with you in a reasonable way. I think you need to go on an anger management course or another one. A lot of criminals go on these courses.

            Do you go hunting wild cats Woody? Such as cougars and bobcats? Bet you do.

        • Well done Woody. I kind of assumed you would know it was me without getting so excited about it. Anyway alot of people are shocked by your comments so I figure mine is useful for them. They need a little background. If I see you commenting elsewhere in the same manner I’ll do the exact same thing. Maybe you wont get so excited next time.

        • Woody, I’m in Switzerland ok, not the UK. Do you read anything – I can’t believe you got that simple fact wrong. I’m a little offended because I thought you read what I write.

  5. Hi Michael,

    I’m always open to seeing yet another Magic cat video. That is a cool cat with a lot of personality.

    Some of my cats rub on my husband’s and my shoes. A couple of them try to climb into them after I take them off. It seems they like the smell of me and like to mark my shoes as theirs.

    I also have a cat who tries to lick my husband’s armpit. I guess she likes him and his scent. The same cat smells my hair at night when I lay down.

    It’s a love and familial gesture as well as a property marking.

    It’s a good sign.

    My cats also groom me and my husband. That’s a family thing too. They rub up against our legs, gently bump heads with us, and roll on our dirty laundry.

    I think it’s all very sweet – it’s part of what I like about cats.

    They do the some of the same things with each other because they love each other and feel a strong bond.

    =^..^= Hairless Cat Girl =^..^=

    • You make a good point. Cats do this sort of thing with each other too. We are just part of the cat family. I am sure our cats see us as cats or perhaps they don’t ask the question whether we are or aren’t cats. I’d like to get inside the head of a cat. It would be fascinating.

      • You think I shoot cats for “my amusement”?!? And this is precisely why you don’t even deserve being spit on if you were dying of thirst. Do you think I WANTED to shoot cats? NO. It was the ONLY WAY to stop them from destroying all my valuable wildlife. The owners didn’t give a damn that endangered animals were being killed by cats, nor that even more rare animals were starving to death because of their cats. ALL THEY CARED ABOUT WERE THAT IF THEY LET THEIR CATS ROAM FREE, THEN THEY WOULD HAVE CONTROL OVER MY LANDS.
        {deleted} It took a LOT of strength of heart to pull the trigger on the very first one. I used to have cats as a child. It took much to override that built-in conditioning in order to do WHAT WAS REQUIRED OF ME.

        But perhaps, if you hear a screaming animal in the woods one too many times. Rushing to its aid. Only to find a cat there ripping its skin over its head, or clawing its guts out with its talons, and the ONLY thing you have with you is your own boot on your foot to STOMP THAT POOR SUFFERING ANIMAL TO DEATH TO SAVE IT FROM THE TORMENT CAUSED BY *YOUR* *CATS*, perhaps then you might begin to understand the strength of heart required to shoot every last cat you saw. Because you got so so so tired of having to stomp poor suffering animals to death WITH YOUR OWN FOOT to stop their suffering caused by people LIKE YOU!

        {deleted} YOU forced me into these situations. {deleted}


        • Although I detest you and what you say and do, I have published your comment (with some section deleted because they are rude) because I want to try and understand you. Why are you are so massively angry and always swear when you comment?.

          If you really want to protect wildlife big time in the best possible way check out what humans are doing to wildlife. For example, all the wild cats are declining in population numbers. The wild cats are disappearing. This is because of human behavior and it is nothing to do with domestic cats. There are countless, millions of examples of how human activity destroys wildlife. The damage done by humans to precious wildlife is thousands of times more destructive than by the domestic cat. If domestic cats hunt they usually hunt rodents. Birds are well down the list. In this way they do a service for humans. That is why they were domesticated.

          Why don’t you approach the protection of wildlife in a more balanced and rational way? You seem highly unbalanced and irrational to me and almost anyone else.

          • {deleted lots of this because it was horribly rude and impolite}

            So are you advising that I shoot YOU to stop it? Is that the ONLY way you’re going to figure it out?


            • No Woody, I am advising you to do something that would never occur to you: to campaign for the protection of native American wildlife by limiting the intrusion of human activity. I guess you don’t understand that sort of thing. It is too subtle and decent and it doesn’t include the use of a gun.

              • Woody, I have tried to communicate with you and be reasonably decent to you despite your disgusting behavior. I have failed because you are slightly mad. You are permanently banned. Don’t try and write anymore comments.

  6. Of course animals scent mark. I loved that show about meerkats before they took it off the air. In every episode there was bound to be some “furious scent marking.” But there were times, such as when a meerkat would refrain from foraging to stay with an injured family member, that it seemed there was more to them than just pure instinct. Certainly, instinct and scent marking are a big part of an animal’s behavior, but now and then it seems that there is something more. I’m sitting on the basement sofa typing on my phone, with Monty right beside me. He’s upset because our nephew is here. He clings to me a little when there is someone new about. I’m more than just food to him– I’m also safety and protection. Does he love me? Maybe not. But that would never stop me from loving him, because it is my calling to do so. Monty was sent to me as a helpless stray kitten so that I would love and care for him. It’s good for him that I do so and it’s good for me, spiritually, to do so. I have no expectations that Monty will love me, but if I find evidence that he does, and isn’t just using me for food, I would not try to explain it away. Animals are capable of more than we give them credit for. It’s important to acknowledge that they are not human, and to understand their behavior on their terms, but it’s also important not to therefore claim animals are inferior and incapable of intelligence and feelings we might only ascribe to humans. There is much we don’t know.

  7. Our female Maine Coon mix, Cali, loves to rub her face all over my stank-azz Birkenstocks (which I should probably throw away cause even I think they’re nasty.) It’s funny, but weird. She doesn’t seem to be attracted to any of my other shoes (running shoes, work boots, etc.) just the Birks…

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