It’s a moment we enjoy: Kitty comes to greet us after he hasn’t seen us for a while. One of the first things he does is rub his face all over us. Why does he do this?
Cats and Scents-ibility
A major way that cats communicate and interpret their world is through smell. Cats have scent glands at various places on their faces and bodies that release pheromones—chemicals that are perceived as scents. When cats rub against us, they deposit their scents on us.
Each cat has a unique scent. For that matter, so does each dog, each human, and every person living in the household. Together, everyone's scents combine to form a group scent—the only one like it in the world. Although our noses aren’t sharp enough to recognize this group scent, to a cat who’s a member (or leader) of the group, the scent is an important identifier of his family.
When kitty rubs his scent on us, he’s reaffirming that we’re part of his exclusive club; his scent, blended with ours and the scents of other household members, is like an identification mark. One of kitty’s self-appointed tasks (the only kind of tasks for a cat) is to make sure we’re always wearing “eau de kitty and friends.” If we pick up other scents during the day, from the office, the grocery store, or—perish the thought—petting someone else’s animal, kitty takes it upon himself to cover up the foreign scents on us by reapplying a good dose of his own through rubbing.
Instinctively, we often pet our cats when they nuzzle against us. In doing so, we exchange scents. Without knowing it, we actively partake in the scent exchange ritual, and help ensure that everyone in the group wears the group “signature.”
You may be able to increase your cat’s satisfaction in his scent-rubbing duties by coming down to his level, so he can rub your face with his. This is the true meaning of interfacing with your cat.
Facial Rubbing as Displaced Aggression
If your cat’s rubbing seems a bit obsessive or frantic rather than friendly, especially if this behavior follows an incident that displeased her, the rubbing may be displaced frustration or aggression, caused when something beyond kitty’s control “rubs her the wrong way.”
For example, your cat may be disappointed that she didn't get yet another of her favorite treats, despite her plaintive meowing and usually irresistible "feed me" look. She doesn't want to bite you, or knows she's not supposed to, so instead she repetitively rubs her head on you or a close-by object ; this is roughly equivalent to a human angrily pacing. As far as possible and practical, relieve kitty's frustration in a manner that's acceptable to all. In the example above, you might redirect kitty's energy in a positive way by initiating a play session. After some healthy, satisfying chases and pounces, perhaps then kitty can have that sought-after treat.