Why do cats rub their faces on you?

Cats rub their faces on their human guardians to improve the bond between them.

Feline allorubbing
Feline allorubbing. Rubbing the cheek depositing a pheromone on his owner’s leg.
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Scent glands

On each side of a domestic cat’s face there are four glands. These glands are the temporal gland, the cheek gland, the perioral gland and the submandibular gland. The glands produce scent. The scent is used to marks objects as a kind of calling card. One of the better pictures of a cat marking territory by rubbing their cheeks against an object is that of a snow leopard in the Himalayas. The scent is also used to cement friendships.

Snow leopard marking a trial with scent from a cheek gland
Snow leopard marking a trial with scent from a cheek gland. Photo: PoC.
Locations of domestic cat scent glands
Locations of domestic cat scent glands. Illustration: PoC.

Allorubbing

So what’s going on when your cat rubs her face against you. She will normally rub her face against your leg or legs because of your size. Or if you are sitting down perhaps she’ll rub her cheeks against your feet:

When cats push and rub against each other like this it is called allorubbing by the experts. It is multifunctional. There is no question that the primary purpose is to enhance the friendship between cats. It’s about bonding. There are two aspects to it. Firstly there is the actual physical contact and secondly the scent from the glands I mention above are deposited on the other cat. This is called scent-exchange. The scent of one cat is deposited on the other cat and vice versa. It’s a sort of merging of their presence. They become like one cat in terms of scent. This is also a bonding process. It makes the friendship stronger.

Obviously, cats do this to each other because they are already friends and the object is to cement that friendship. Therefore if a cat rubs her face on you their objective is the same. They want to cement the friendship. It’s a sign of affection. Cats also do it when in the process of asking for something like food or to be picked up. But the giving of food by a person is also an act of friendship. These are human-cat interactions which are centred around affection, one for the other.

You will see allorubbing more commonly amongst feral cats than domestic cats. You will see it when they reunite after separating to go hunting. Other forms of tactile behaviours are nose touching and resting together. Cats use other cats with whom they are friends as pillows. You will also see the tails of two cats who are great friends intertwined and a tail being used to touch the other cat. This is about improving social bonding as well.

Cats love like people
Cats love like people. Collage: PoC.

When your cat rubs her face against you, you should feel blessed in that you have a good friend and that she wants that friendship to remain for the benefit of you both.

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