What do you do when your cat rubs herself against your legs? Do you give her more cuddles? What about that magical moment when your cat touches her nose to yours and then gives you a little bump with her head? Does your heart melt?
Cats have learned how to use their social cues to show love and trust in a way that even humans can understand! But if you sometimes find your cat's rubbing rituals confusing, a few facts that will help you make sense of them!
6) Why Scent Matters to Cats
It's through their acute sniffing abilities that cats learn all about who (and what) they share their space with. When cats want to introduce themselves to other cats, they use unique scents, known as pheromones, to do it. These chemical messages allow cats to recognize other cats as threats or friends.
Cats have a lot of scent glands, especially between their ears, along their cheeks, and on their chins, as well as on their paws and by their tails. Cats instinctively rub themselves against surfaces, stimulating their glands and unleashing their pheromones on the world.
So, let's say that Mittens is your cat. And your friend—that you visit regularly—has a cat named Pumpkin. Mittens will be able to smell Pumpkin's rubbings on your legs, and she will be able to tell the degree of friendliness Pumpkin feels toward you. Better yet, Pumpkin will know that Mittens is the cat who loves you very much.
And that's just one example of how pheromones deliver social communication between cats. Scents also provide helpful reference points throughout a cat’s territory. Leaving familiar scents behind on different objects helps cats feel secure and at home.
Pheromone Fun Fact
Cats have different types of pheromones for various situations, and certain scent combinations mean specific things. So, the pheromone scents your cat leaves to mark her territory won’t smell the same as the ones she leaves on you during a greeting.
5) Explaining Allorubbing
Cats are willing to rub their faces and bodies against all sorts of things—your legs, other cats, your desk, doorframes, et cetera. This behavior is called allorubbing, and cats do it all the time!
Through allorubbing, cats demonstrate affection, share their pheromones, and mark their territory—all simultaneously! That's why cats in the same social group rub against each other often. It's how cats express affiliation and warm feelings toward those they are bonded closely with.
Allorubbing is also a greeting as well as a sign of acceptance. The person, cat, or thing chosen for rubbing gets a “stamp of approval” and is adopted into the territory. Thus, when Mittens happily decorates your home with her scent, it’s because she wants to feel secure in your environment.
Additionally, if Mittens is hungry or thirsty, she might rub against your legs or the wall in front of her empty dish to let you know what she needs from you.
4) What Allogrooming Does
Have you ever observed two cats grooming each other? It's very sweet to see. Not just any two cats will share their grooming sessions, though. Allogrooming only happens when a bond of trust exists.
Mother cats care for their kittens by grooming them. Not only does frequent cleaning keep kittens healthy, but it provides a soothing opportunity for bonding and comfort. Depending on the context, allogrooming among adult cats may also diffuse tension, offer reconciliation, or even initiate play.
Allogrooming translates into familiarity and mutual caring. It's a great cuddle session between cats who have known each other for a long time. So, when you pet your cat around his head, ears, and chin, he thinks you’re allogrooming him, and if you’re lucky, he will return the favor!
If you want to see examples of allogrooming in action, watch this video from Cole and Marmalade.
3) Why Bunting Is Important
When your cat does a gentle head nudge or bunt, she’s being friendly. Bunting between cats means they perceive each other as belonging to the same social group.
Like allorubbing, bunting stimulates the glands at the top of the head, releasing a cat's chemical messages and leaving territorial marks behind.
When Mittens gives you a little head bump, it's as though she is affectionately saying, "I love you, have some of my pheromones!" And when you reciprocate her action, it's like you are saying, "I love you too! Here are some of mine right back!"
If your cat likes bunting you while you are behind your laptop, chances are she’s asking you for attention.
unting takes a lot of trust because when a cat closes her eyes and bows her head, she makes herself defenseless. So, Mittens wouldn't engage in bunting with an unfamiliar cat because it makes her ears and eyes vulnerable to attack. That’s why cats reserve bunting for friends only!
2) Communal Scent
Together, allogrooming, allorubbing, and bunting create one new communal or family scent. This familiar smell strengthens the social bond between cats living together.
When cats share a territory, like your house, everyone will need to rub against everything regularly. Things need to be re-marked often (because smells change all the time, apparently).
Not only does a communal scent maintain the social order and harmony of the group, but it also helps cats identify intruders.
Cats regard anything that smells unfamiliar as suspicious. For example, say your vet recommends bathing Mittens with a prescribed soap to treat a skin condition. Once you've given Mittens her bath, your other cats will be confused, expressing fear and even aggression toward her. Mittens will do her best to groom herself and rub against things as quickly as possible, getting her signature scent back and regaining the trust of her friends.
1) Social Hierarchies
As mentioned, cats rub against their friends to establish social bonds, but it goes a little further. Allorubbing helps cats maintain their peculiar hierarchy.
In a cat hierarchy, lower-ranking cats defer to higher-ranking ones most of the time. But sometimes, the “top cat” will be the one to defer (depending on their mood).
Since cats are socially flexible, they can adapt to various family arrangements. However, individual personality also determines who gets along with who. Some cats simply don’t like one another, even if they belong to the same family, which influences the structure of their hierarchy.
The interesting thing is that cats depend on mutual trust more than most of us realize. And family for cats includes us—their humans!
In short, cats need scent for their funny little family arrangements to function. Not that anyone fully understands how their laws work. What we do know is that, for cats, rubbing against things is a universal language of love!
If you want more ways to be a dependable cat parent, check out the blog!