Do Cats Actually Enjoy Face Rubs? The Surprising Truth About Feline Affection


Have you ever had your cat rub their face against yours as a loving gesture? It can be a sweet moment of bonding. Cats have scent glands on their face, so when they rub up against objects or people, they’re depositing their scent. For cat owners, a face rub often shows that the cat feels safe and connected. However, some cats actually don’t like having a human face in close contact. Understanding cat behavior provides insights into why our feline friends rub against us.

The Behavior behind the Head Rub

Rubbing or bunting, as it is scientifically referred to, is an instinctual feline behavior where cats rub their head, side of their face, neck, or full body against people, furniture and other objects. This head rubbing behavior starts in kittenhood when a mother cat rubs against her kittens as a way to mark them with her scent and show affection.[1]

As cats mature, they continue this head rubbing behavior with other cats in their colony and with their human owners. For cats, rubbing helps establish relationships through leaving facial pheromones. It also marks territory by spreading their scents. When done against people, head rubs are a way for cats to mingle their scent with their human’s scent as a sign of familiarity and affection.[2]

So in summary, head rubbing is an instinctual cat behavior that is a way for them to show affection, mark territory, and mingle scents with their owners.

Cats Scent Mark their Owners

Cats have scent glands on their faces, including around their lips and cheeks. When a cat rubs its face on a person or object, it is leaving behind pheromones from these glands. This scent marking lets other cats know that the person or object belongs to that cat. It is a way for cats to identify their territory and mark what is theirs. According to Cat Care Center, the main facial scent glands for cats are located on their cheeks, upper lips, chin, and whisker pads. So when a cat rubs its face on you, it is leaving its scent to claim you as part of its territory. The pheromones provide information to other cats that you belong to that specific cat.

Showing Affection and Bonding

When cats rub their heads against their owners, it is often a sign of affection and bonding. This behavior, known as bunting or head butting, allows cats to mark their owners with facial pheromones and create a sense of familiarity. According to Southern Living, bunting helps cats claim their territory and the people or objects within it. By rubbing against their owners, cats are saying “you’re mine!”

Head bunting is a social behavior that strengthens the bond between a cat and their favored humans. As PetMD explains, when a cat rubs its head against you, it is mixing its scent with yours and marking you as a trusted companion. This exchange of scents creates a familiar “group smell” that is comforting to cats. So when your cat rubs against you, they are also saying “you’re family!”

Overall, head bunting demonstrates a cat’s affection for their owner and helps foster an intimate bond between cat and human.

Some Cats Dislike Face Rubbing

Even though many cats enjoy gentle face rubs, individual preferences vary. Some cats may dislike having their faces touched due to overstimulation or negative past experiences. Facial stimulation can be perceived as threatening for cats who prefer limited interaction.

According to veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec (source), cats have sensitive nerve endings concentrated around the face, so too much direct contact can feel like an assault to some felines. Kittens removed from their mothers too early may not have learned to enjoy face rubs as a social bonding behavior.

Cats who don’t like their faces touched may turn their heads, back away, shake off your hand, or even bite or scratch as a warning. Respect your cat’s boundaries and look for other ways to bond if they dislike having their faces rubbed.

How to Tell if Your Cat Likes Face Rubs

Cats display positive body language when they enjoy face rubs from their owners. Here are some signs your cat likes having their face rubbed:

  • Purring – A purring cat is a happy cat. If your cat purrs when you rub their face, it’s a clear indication they are enjoying the affection.
  • Kneading – Cat’s knead with their front paws when they are content. Kneading while getting a face rub shows your cat is relaxed and comfortable.
  • Leaning into the rub – If your cat leans their head into your hand as you pet their face, it means they want more!
  • Slow blinking eyes – Also called “cat kisses,” slow blinking is a gesture of love and trust in cats. If your cat slowly blinks at you when you rub their face, they are saying “I love you!”
  • Licking – Licks are like kisses for cats. A lick on your hand or arm means “thanks for the pets!”
  • Rolling over – If your cat flops over exposing their belly after a nice face rub, it’s a sign they feel safe and want more affection from you.
  • Tail up – A tail up in the air shows a relaxed, content cat. Pair tail-up body language with face rubbing and it’s clear your cat is in bliss.

Knowing your cat’s unique body language takes time. Looking for multiple signs of cat happiness described above will help you tell if those face rubs are well received. For more insights see this article on cat body language.

When to Avoid Face Rubs

While most cats enjoy face rubs from their owners, there are some situations where it’s best to avoid rubbing your cat’s face.

If your cat seems irritated, scared, or is exhibiting signs of stress or fear, it’s best not to rub its face. Trying to force affection on a cat that is already in an agitated state will likely just stress it out further. Instead, give your cat space and let it approach you for affection when it feels ready.

You’ll also want to avoid rubbing the face of a cat that has any health issues affecting its face or head. This includes eye infections, dental problems, ear irritations, abscesses, or sores. Rubbing an already sore or irritated area will cause additional discomfort. Let any health issues be treated first before resuming face rubs.

Kittens should not have their faces rubbed too often or forcefully since their faces are still delicate while growing. And elderly cats with arthritis or joint pain may also dislike having their faces touched too firmly.

Pay attention to your cat’s body language and reactions. If face rubs elicit hissing, scratching, biting, or other negative responses, discontinue them. Your cat is clearly communicating it doesn’t enjoy that form of affection.

Precautions for Face Rubbing

While most cats enjoy a good face rub, there are some precautions owners should take to ensure it’s a positive experience for their feline friend:

Avoid direct contact with the eyes. A cat’s eyes are very sensitive, so rubbing against them could be uncomfortable or even painful. Signs a cat wants you to avoid the eyes include squinting, blinking rapidly, or turning their head away.[1]

Watch for signs of overstimulation. Some cats may become overstimulated by prolonged face rubbing. Signs include dilated pupils, skin twitching, tail swishing, or trying to move away. It’s best to keep face rubs brief if your cat seems overstimulated.

Let the cat initiate contact and control the duration. Forcing interaction can cause anxiety. Allow the cat to rub against your face at their own pace so they feel safe and comfortable.

Avoid face rubbing cats who show signs of irritation like growling or biting. This likely indicates they do not enjoy having their face touched.

In general, brief face rubs most cats enjoy can become a way for you and kitty to bond. But be mindful of cues from your cat and keep sessions short and sweet.

Alternative Forms of Affection

If your cat dislikes having your face rubbed against them, there are plenty of other ways to bond and show affection. Here are some alternatives to try:

Playtime – Many cats love interactive playtime with toys like wands, balls, and laser pointers. Engaging your cat in play allows them to act on their natural hunting instincts and expend energy in a positive way. It’s also a great way to strengthen your bond.

Petting/Brushing – Most cats enjoy being petted in preferred spots like under the chin, cheeks, and base of the tail. Brushing your cat helps reduce shedding while removing dead hair. The rhythmic motion can be calming and soothing for cats when done gently.

Treats – Giving your cat tasty treats is an easy way to positively reinforce behaviors and make them associate you with rewards. Try offering treats by hand for extra bonding.

Clicker Training – With patience and positive reinforcement using clickers and treats, you can teach your cat simple commands and tricks. This mental stimulation strengthens your connection.

Let Them Come to You – Instead of picking your cat up, allow them to come sit with you on their own terms. This allows them to control the interaction and feel secure.

New Toys – Rotate new toys to spark playfulness and curiosity. Novelty helps keep your cat engaged and interested when interacting with you.

Pheromones – Synthetic pheromones can help reduce stress and encourage cats to become more affectionate and sociable around family members.

Patience – Give your cat time to become comfortable showing affection. Building a bond takes time, but the reward is a lifetime of companionship.

With patience and trying different approaches, you can find ways to interact that make your unique cat feel happy, secure, and bonded with you.


In summary, cats show affection in various ways which can be perplexing to their human companions. Face rubbing helps cats spread their scent and is sometimes a sign of trust and bonding. However, not all cats enjoy having a human rub their face on them. Pay attention to your feline’s body language and reaction to determine if they like face rubs or if an alternative form of affection would be better. Always be gentle and stop if the cat seems distressed. While our human instincts may tell us to show love by rubbing our faces on cats, it’s important to respect our feline friends’ boundaries. With understanding and care, we can build strong bonds with our cats based on mutual trust and affection.

When it comes to face rubbing, the old adage rings true: some like it, some don’t. As with any relationship, open communication and respect for each other’s preferences is key. By tuning into our cats’ unique personalities, we can find creative ways to exchange affection while keeping their comfort at the forefront.

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