Your cat’s gentle headrubs are an important part of their social behaviour.
|Photo: Marie-Claude Lemay/Shutterstock|
By Zazie Todd PhD
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Most people are flattered when their cat rubs their head on their legs when they come home from being out. After all, it shows the cat is paying attention to you. You should be delighted to see this behavior which is essentially a sign of friendship and that your cat sees you as part of their social group.
When your cat headbutts you with their forehead, it’s called bunting. When your cat rubs their head and cheeks, and maybe continues to rub their side and even tail against you or another cat, this is called allorubbing.
Sometimes the word bunting is used to mean head rubbing on objects (as distinguished from allorubbing on cats, people, or other animals), but the more general use of the word seems to include rubbing on people too.
Why do cats bunt and allorub?
When cats rub their head and body against another cat, it is both a tactile experience (the feeling of being rubbed) and an olfactory one.
Cats have scent glands around their head, and when they rub on things, people, or other cats, they are depositing pheromones (chemical signals with meaning).
The pheromones that are deposited by head-rubbing are believed to play an important role in feline social behaviour. Five different pheromones are known to be secreted by the glands in cats’ cheeks (Shreve and Udell, 2017). While we don’t fully understand them yet, we know that the F3 and F4 pheromones seem to be involved in marking of an affiliative nature.
Cats often leave the F3 pheromone behind when they rub on things, such as furniture or walls in the home. He’s believed this helps them to feel safe and know that they are on their home territory.
When cats rub on each other or you, they are marking with the F4 pheromone.
Allorubbing between feral cats sometimes lasts for several minutes and is often accompanied by purring (Crowell-Davis et al., 2004). It’s believed that the transfer of scent that takes place helps to build up a ‘colony odour’ or group scent which shows that the cats are part of the same social group.
What is allogrooming?
Allogrooming is also a social behavior between cats. It involves one cat grooming another cat, typically around the head in places that are not so easy for the cat to lick themself.
Sometimes the cat being groomed is very cooperative, moving their head to make it easier for the other cat to lick them on the head and neck. Other times, it may seem more like the other cat is pinning them down while they groom them.
So allogrooming often seems to be a friendly behaviour, but sometimes there is some tension involved. Maybe in those cases it works to defuse the tension.
Allogrooming is more common amongst cats who have grown up together and are related, and it also seems that cats who have lived together for longer are more likely to allogroom (Finka 2022).
When your cat licks you, it is similar to allogrooming between cats.
|Photo: Chris Hill/Shutterstock|
What about when we pet cats?
When scientists looked at how cats like to be petted they found that most prefer not to be petted around the base of the tail; they generally prefer to be petted around the head and neck.
Because of this, they suggested that when people pet their cat, it is more like allogrooming than allorubbing. However they say it’s also possible that the cats didn’t think the people were close enough (from a social perspective) to be allowed to pet them near the tail.
Allorubbing is a friendly behaviour
Allorubbing is a sociable behavior between cats who are part of the same social group—friends, in other words.
So when your cat rubs their head or body on you, it’s a sign that they consider you part of their social group.
The fact that this is an important greeting behavior for cats is underlined by a study in which more than 80% of cats rubbed on their person when they were reunited after a separation (Behnke et al 2021).
So enjoy this lovely attention from your feline friend.
If you liked this post, check out my book, Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, which publishes in May and is available for pre-order now.
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Behnke, AC, Vitale, KR, & Udell, MA (2021). The effect of owner presence and scent on stress resilience in cats. Applied Animal Behavior Science243, 105444. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2021.105444
Crowell-Davis, SL, Curtis, TM, & Knowles, RJ (2004). Social organization in the cat: a modern understanding. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 6(1), 19-28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfms.2003.09.013
Ellis, SLH, Thompson, H., Guijarro, C., & Zulch, HE (2015). The influence of body region, handler familiarity and order of region handled on the domestic cat’s response to being stroked. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 173, 60-67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.11.002
Finka, L.R. (2022). Conspecific and Human Sociality in the Domestic Cat: Consideration of Proximate Mechanisms, Human Selection and Implications for Cat Welfare. Animals12(3), 298. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12030298
Shreve, KRV, & Udell, MA (2017). Stress, security, and scent: The influence of chemical signals on the social lives of domestic cats and implications for applied settings. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 187, 69-76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2016.11.011
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