Last Updated on October 12, 2021 by Julia Wilson
Every cat owner has seen this; your cat is hungry, he weaves in and out of your legs, you return home from work, he rubs his cheek against your shin, headbutts you, rubs against a sofa, or a corner. Why is he doing this?
All of this is due to pheromones, a chemical produced by scent glands. Glands are located all over the body and relay different messages, but they are all a form of scent communication. The facial glands located on the lips, cheeks, and forehead, and trigger a sense of calm in cats. You will find your cat rubs against you or other objects when he is marking his territory (in a nice way), showing his affection for you. He is feeling happy, calm and at ease.
- Head bunting: When a cat rubs his or head against objects or people.
- Allorubbing: Two cats who rub their bodies against each other.
Head bunting is reserved for humans and other familiar animals while lip rubbing is reserved for objects. I witnessed this today when our cat was seriously head bunting the hand of a friend, but then moving over to a book and rubbing his lips on the book. Not only do cats rub against furniture, walls and you, but cats who like each other will often rub heads together. This is a sign of familiarity and comfort; they like each other and are happy.
You may also notice that cats will rub their head and body on objects they want to re-scent. Maybe it is a new you have come back smelling of another cat, dog, house. Rubbing against you gets his scent back onto you.
Similar glands also occur at the base of the tail. This explains why your cat will not only rub his head but also his body on your legs or the wall, sofa etc. Again, they’re transferring these feel-good pheromones onto you or the object which produces a sense of calm in the cat.
Pheromones also send messages to other members of the same species. For example, females in heat secrete pheromones so that local tomcats know that she is in season and ready to mate.
Urine and feces also contain pheromones, which is why cats spray – as a way to mark their territory or objects. Intact males are most likely to engage in spraying behaviour as they are considerably more territorial than desexed cats, but spraying can occur in all cats, especially under stress.
Scratching is another behaviour we humans despair at, but this too is a method of feline communication. Glands between the toes transfer his scent onto objects they scratch — another way to mark his territory.
Nursing mothers secrete pheromones from around the nipple when they are nursing their kitten. This helps them to feel calm and secure and recognise the individual scent of their mother (remember, kittens are born with their eyes closed so can’t see for the first few weeks).
Types of cat pheromones
The cat has four kinds of pheromone:
- The feel-good pheromone found on the face of the cat and at the base of the tail.
- The urine pheromone used to mark territories and boundaries.
- The sex pheromone to let other cats know a female is in heat.
- The pheromone that the mother cat secretes to help her kittens recognise her and make them feel happy and safe.
Rats and mice dislike the scent of pheromones in cat urine; however, when infected with toxoplasmosis, the parasite alters the behaviour of the rat who is no longer fearful. This makes the rat more likely to be hunted and eaten by a cat.
Pheromones can be used to our advantage to help overcome behaviours such as scratching and spraying. As they produce a sense of calm and happiness in the cat, we can mock these feelings with the use of man-made or synthetic pheromones such as Feliway. Stress is a major cause of unwanted behaviours such as inappropriate spraying, urination and scratching in cats. Common triggers include moving house, the addition of a new cat (or another family member), change in routine, a new cat in the neighbourhood.