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Why Do Cats Rub Against Your Legs? Feline Pheromones Explained

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By Nicole Cosgrove

Cat rubbing against owner's legs

If you’ve ever spent any time with a cat, you know that they often rub against their humans. When they rub against someone’s legs, they often do it face-first, as if they are trying to headbutt their owners. Cats rub against objects such as their owners’ legs in order to transfer their scent, almost as if they are claiming you as one of their possessions (not the other way around).

In this article, we will discuss this behavior in more depth.

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How Do Cats Transfer Their Scent?

Cats have scent glands in the area surrounding their face—their cheeks, chin, forehead–and around their tail. They even have glands on their paw pads. The behavior of rubbing releases pheromones, which are a kind of chemical communication to claim their territory. When an individual cat releases pheromones, other cats might receive the “message” being conveyed and behave in response.

Of course, humans can’t pick up on a cat’s pheromones, but even felines in single-cat households do this.

cat rubbing face on man's leg
Image Credit: AlenaBalotnik, Shutterstock

What Are Some Other Reasons Your Cat Might Rub Against Your Legs?

Besides marking their territory, there are some other reasons why your cat might rub against your legs. The first reason is the most obvious: it’s a sign of affection! Cats learn this behavior from their mothers and other familiar cats, and it’s often used as a sign of greeting. A cat who rubs against your leg when you get home from a day at work is probably saying that it’s really glad you’re home and that it missed you!

You may have noticed that in addition to rubbing its face or body on you, your cat has a tendency to full-on head butt you. This behavior is known as “bunting,” and it is also a way for your cat to mark its territory. However, bunting is slightly more than that. According to PetMD, bunting is a way for your cat to show affiliation. Translation: you are your cat’s person. Cats also bunt as a way of showing trust. This behavior puts your cat’s eyes and face in a vulnerable position, so you probably won’t see it headbutting strangers.

The last reason why your cat might rub against you is also the simplest: it wants your attention. When your cat wants something, whether it’s pets, treats, or playtime, it will rub against your legs to let you know. It’s pretty hard to ignore your cat when it’s weaving in and out of your legs, isn’t it?

Why Do Cats Rub Against Strangers?

Sometimes, cats rub against complete strangers. Some cats are friendlier than others, so this behavior could be a sign of greeting. However, the main purpose of rubbing against a stranger’s leg probably has to do with something else. Cats will often do this—with humans or other animals—to gather information. They can learn a lot from this behavior, like where the new human comes from or whether they have any cats or other animals at home.

Some cats that rub against strangers are friendly and accept petting from new people, but be warned that this behavior is not necessarily an invitation for the human to pet them.

cat rubbing its head against the owner's legs
Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

Cats mainly rub against your legs in an effort to mark you with their scent, but there are other reasons why a cat might exhibit this behavior. Try to pay attention to the circumstances of the rubbing to get an idea as to what your cat’s motivation might be!

Looking for more information on cat communication? Try:

Featured Image Credit: Evan Abram McGinnis, Shutterstock

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