Watching cats is a window into a very mysterious world. My house is always filled with the antics of my cats. Often there is a great commotion with banging and bumping: there goes a vase! I knew I should have put the lamp away. But it’s in the quieter moments that things get really interesting. My two big toms wander around the house rubbing themselves on doors, the corner of the couch, the legs of the coffee table, and seemingly every object they can reach. They especially like to rub on my elderly, patient dog. This cat face rubbing extends to me as well. My hands when I write, my face when we relax, and my feet when I’m in bed. So let’s find out: why do cats rub their faces and what is the difference between face rubbing and table rubbing?

1. Cats rub their snouts against you to mark their scent.

As for the question “Why do cats rub their faces?”, let’s get this straight: cats don’t rub their faces against things because they itch. According to Stephanie Borns-Weil, MD, DVM, on the Cummings Blog at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, cats use glands in their snouts to leave scent marks. He explains that there are glands on the chin, ears, sides, and back of the neck. These glands are activated when cats rub their faces with objects. This behavior, called “head-bobbing,” is a form of feline communication.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, professor emeritus at Cummings Veterinary School, echoes this sentiment in his article, “The Art of the Bunting.” He explains that cats communicate with their conspecifics when they leave a scent trail of rubbing, which contains feline facial pheromones. Basically, cats mark objects with a scent that lets other cats know they’ve been there. In case anyone was wondering. It’s part of their territory claim, and their territory extends to you! Or does it extend to you?

2. Rubbing the cat’s face started in the wild.

Cats in the wild had to communicate to survive. In the book “Neurobiology of Chemical Communication” by Mousumi Poddar-Sarkar and Ratan Lal Brahmachary, the authors indicate that the topic of chemical signaling, of which pheromones are one aspect, is very broad in large felines. The phenomenon of the hunting head is thought to have evolved to help cats attract mates. By leaving a calling card with pheromones, the cat is saying, “Feel my superior masculinity.” It is also said that big cats often have overlapping territories, which could also mean “I’m a big boy, don’t mess with me.”

The scientific report, Comparative Analysis of the Domestic Cat Genome Reveals Genetic Signatures Underlying Feline Biology and Domestication, indicates that there is strong evidence for the importance of pheromones in the socio-chemical communication of cats. This makes sense because many large cats have overlapping and sometimes colliding territories. What happens to each member of the territory can mean the difference between life and death. If your cat is rubbing its face against surfaces, this is a serious survival tactic.

Christian Nordqvist explains in an article in Medical News Today that pheromones act as behavioral modifiers. And it’s not just sexual (although the love tigers in Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men might disagree). The behaviors they can trigger include Bonding, alarm, “food is like this,” absenteeism, and sexual arousal. That’s a lot of information that can save your life when navigating neolithic landscapes like a cat.

3. Cats rub their faces to show affection.

While your cats are busy rubbing their snouts on inanimate objects in your home to declare them as their own, do they really count them as inventory? There are many elusive ways cats show their affection. To the untrained eye, many cat behaviors appear eccentric. However, many of their actions are their way of showing how much they love you. Cats actually rub their faces against you to show you their love. It’s a confusing message of love, but it’s a message.

Pam Johnson-Bennett, a cat behaviorist and author, explains on her blog Cat Behavior Associates that the rubbing behavior is just for bonding, socializing and comforting. When your cat rubs against you, he’s feeling affection. Cats also give each other strokes. Also explain that cats give head bumps to get attention. If your cat hits its head and then turns it down and to the side, it may ask to be scratched on its ears, neck and face. And there’s a good reason for this: massaging and scratching these areas helps release endorphins.

The more your cat rubs against you, the more he shows you that he loves you. Each rub of your cat’s face means less “be mine” and more “you are mine.”

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