When my cat greets me at the front door his tail is up and he rubs the side of his body against my hands as I untie the laces of my shoes. Incidentally, the tail-up position as a greeting between cats, which is reciprocated, makes me think how a cat feels about our failure to do the same thing when they greet us. It is presumed that each cat learns the body language of their caretaker/guardian to figure out whether their warm greeting has been noticed. It is believed that the tail-up position evolved between cats and not between cats and their owners which makes sense.
The style of rubbing that a cat adopts varies between individual cats. It is not known whether this variation has any significance. Some cats rub the side of their head while others will continue to rub down the side of their flank. Others will also include the tail. Other cats will not make direct contact with their owner. And then there are cats who will jump up to head-butt. The cat has to go on his hind legs because we are much taller than them; they might make contact with the person’s knee instead of the head.
It is said that some timid cats prefer to rub against physical objects nearby rather than the leg of the person e.g. a chair leg or door. Sometimes a confident cat who does not know the person might also do this. One expert, Dr John Bradshaw, says that cats might do it because they are confident that the object won’t push them away as opposed to a person who might well do so.
When a cat rubs against an object in this way some experts believe that they are simply depositing scent from glands on the side of their head and flanks. However, when cats deliberately wish to deposit scent they perform that action in a different way and therefore it is presumed that if a cat rubs against an object when greeting this is not a form of scent marking.
Rubbing in this way can only be a sign of affection and is primarily a tactile action. In the past, I had thought that this was more about scent exchange but Dr Bradshaw says it’s more about a tactile response.
Another time that cats rub against us is at the moment we are about to feed them. This is said to be cupboard love. However, we all know that cats rub against each other or other animals indicating that they are not seeking a reward but declaring affection to the other animal. Very often cats will rub against a dog in the household. Rubbing is a social event.
Bradshaw says that when a cat rubs against a person or another animal they automatically deposit scent on that person but that this appears not to hold any significance for the cat; the primary purpose, as mentioned, of rubbing against the person is not to deposit scent. It is primarily a tactile display. He argues that if was about depositing scent the cat would then sniff the area where the scent had been deposited. I think I disagree with him on this because it is quite possible that cats are able to smell the scent in the air without having to physically sniff it on the person.
When cats of a different size, who are friendly with each other, rub against each other then it is said that the smaller cat usually rubs the larger cat who does not reciprocate. Relating this to cats interacting with people, I’m not sure what other people do but when my cat rubs against me I stroke him which is my version of rubbing him and returning the favour. This may be important because although cats like to rub against us, and are not seeking reciprocation, it would seem that reciprocation is a good idea in order to cement the relationship. In fact I do more than simple stroke him; I pick him up and cuddle and kiss him with great affection.
At an early age, kittens spontaneously rub against older cats who they find friendly. Kittens may take a little while to find their feet in a new home and may take several weeks or perhaps even months to start rubbing on their new caretakers.