By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 9 July 2011)
Cats have scent glands at various spots on their bodies, including their feet, flanks, and faces, through which they can release pheromones (chemical messages that affect cat behaviour). By engaging in different types of rubbing, cats mark their territory and establish group scents, which are an important factor in maintaining group identity in multi-cat households. When cats rub up against one another, the activity is called allorubbing.
A cat will often rub his entire body along his favourite humans to mark them as part of his group. Scent can also be transferred when an owner strokes a cat. Many cats will hiss at a well-known human who has recently stroked a cat that is not part of the home group because they feel threatened by the other cat’s scent.
Cats often rub the sides of their faces on things, an activity called “chinning.” They do this because they have scent glands on their chins and lips, and they use these to override the scents left by other animals. Often, when a cat encounters a residual scent left by another animal, he will engage in a prolonged episode of chinning until he’s sure that he has claimed the spot for himself.
Head-butting, or “bunting,” is an affectionate gesture. Cats will head-butt only those for whom they feel great trust and affection. Head butting often precedes full body rubbing, and cats will usually only do this when they’re in a good mood.
When cats scratch things, they leave a faint scent mark. Although the scent comes from the paws rubbing against the surface, leaving a scratch mark alerts other animals to a subtle scent message that they might otherwise overlook. Although cats may scratch things when they’re alone, they’re more likely to engage in this behaviour in the presence of other cats or humans, which suggests that it’s a way of marking territory.
Other Scent-Marking Behaviours
Unneutered male cats may engage in spraying as a way to mark their territory. To combat this problem, there is a commercially available product called Feliway that contains cat pheromones. Spraying Feliway on a targeted sopt reduces the likelihood that a cat will spray there.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons why they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- Nash, H., DVM, MS. (2008). “Why Do Cats Rub Against Legs and Furniture?” PetEducation.com.
- Tabor, R. (1997). Understanding Cat Behaviour. Cincinnati, OH: F&W Publications, Inc.