Why Do Cats Rub Against You? The Reasons Behind This Behavior

From scratching the furniture to swishing their tails, cats' body language can be tough to decipher. We spoke to a cat behaviorist to find out why cats rub against their owners.

They’re furry and fickle, and it can be hard to know the reason behind a cat’s behavior whether it’s staring at you, wagging its tail, kneading the bed, or rubbing up against its humans. So why do cats rub against you? Is it because you’re doing things your cat hates? Or is your fur-covered best friend trying to show affection when they purr while rubbing against your leg in the kitchen? We checked in with Mikel Maria Delgado, PhD, a certified animal behaviorist, and certified cat behavior consultant who works with Rover, to get the answer.

What does it mean if a cat rubs against your leg?

The reasons cats rub against your leg have everything to do with scent, says Delgado. “Cats have scent glands all over their bodies,” she shares. Thanks to those scent glands, when cats rub against people or objects, they are transferring their scent, and rubbing against someone or something serves two purposes.

  • It allows them to mark objects as their territory. In essence, your cat is “claiming you.”
  • It is a sign of inclusiveness and affection. “It allows them to share their scent with other cats they are friendly with, creating a group scent,” says Delgado. By rubbing against your legs, “your cat is letting you know you are part of their inner circle,” she says.

In addition to transferring their scent, there is another reason cats rub against your legs, and it’s a learned behavior, rather than an instinctual one. “Many cats learn they can get your attention by rubbing on you, so it’s not unusual for cats to do this when they want something, like dinner.”

If a cat rubs against your legs, does it mean that it likes you?

If a cat is rubbing against your legs, it’s letting other cats know you’re their human. So, yes, it’s a safe bet that they like you.

When it comes to other ways cats express their affection, there are as many ways they can show their owners love as there are reasons why cats meow. “Some felines like simply to be in the same room with you or enjoy interactive play and training with you,” she explains. “Other cats are more affectionate and may sit on a lap or seek out attention.”

Should I worry if my cat is rubbing against things all of the time?

If your cat seems a little too into headbutting, Delgado says there’s no cause for concern and that it is, in fact, normal cat behavior. “It’s one way they mark their territory, and rubbing can help cats feel safe,” she says. And what if they’re rubbing against the same thing, like a side of the sofa all the time? That’s normal, too. “Cats will often return to the same areas to ‘refresh’ their rubs.” As their scent wears off over time, they’ll need to reclaim the person or object all over again.

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Terri Peters
Terri Peters is an award-winning journalist and a contributor to Reader's Digest's Travel section. Her articles have also appeared on TODAY Parents, TODAY.com, Culturess, Babble and the Huffington Post. She spent several years working as a local news reporter in Maryland before transitioning to writing freelance for national online publications. Now based out of Florida, she particularly enjoys covering parenting and travel stories, but also dabbles in health, food and style news coverage.