Domesticated cats rub their mouths on people they know and love but will also do this with strangers if they're sufficiently confident. They also rub their heads and chins on people and things in the environment. Commonly this is taken to be a sign of affection; owners believe that the cat is showing he's happy.
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Causes of Mouth-Rubbing Behavior
Cats rub their mouths--and also their cheeks, chins and foreheads--on people and things because they have scent glands in all these places. They are placing their scent on you when they do this. In the wild, cats use scent marks to mark their territory, while domestic cats use rubbing behaviour both as a form of marking and as a familiar greeting.
Responding to Mouth-Rubbing
If your pet cat rubs his mouth on you, it's appropriate to stroke him in response; this will make him feel more secure. He will get to rub more of his scent on you, reinforcing his sense of belonging both to you and to the home. Encourage visitors to let your cat mouth-rub and head-rub if he chooses.
Changes in Mouth-Rubbing Behavior
If you notice your cat doing more rubbing behaviour than normal either with people or furniture items, he's possibly feeling anxious; you may need to make your home less stressful. Your cat might be saying he's uncertain around your new visitor, baby or pet or that the house renovations are upsetting him. The presence of new cats in the neighbourhood is also a cause of increased mouth-rubbing.
Cats who do a lot of mouth-rubbing on people and things respond well to behavioural scent plug-ins available from some veterinarians. These plug-ins diffuse a synthetic pheromone scent, the same kind of scent your cat is trying to spread when he rubs his mouth and head on things. Providing more hiding places and tall cat trees to climb in also helps cats feel less anxious; they feel secure in high places.
If suddenly increased head-rubbing or mouth-rubbing is accompanied by aggression or by urinating or defecating around the home, take your cat to the veterinarian. He may have an underlying health problem or need referral to a pet behaviourist.
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