It’s hard to see a cat and not pet them, and most cats beg to be petted. “Cats typically enjoy being touched on the head, chin, and neck,” says Dr Carling Matejka, DVM and spokesperson for pet food company Solid Gold. Others don’t care for physical touch, and most have no-touch zones in vulnerable spots like their belly. That’s why understanding how and where to pet a cat is essential.
But why do cats like getting their cheek and chin scratched? Well, cats live scent-driven lives. And it turns out, their favourite places to be stroked releases a lot of scents called pheromones—we just can’t smell them. Scratching a cat’s cheek or chin causes your scent to mix with theirs, making them even happier.
On the flip side, scratching a cat’s chin is also good for both your health. In fact, if your cat purrs when you help their itch, all the better! Studies have found that purring is good for a cat’s health—strengthening a cat’s bones and muscles, helping to heal injuries, and self-soothing your favourite feline.
But pheromones only scratch the surface of your cat’s love of chin and cheeks rubs, Dr Matejka says. Here are reasons why cats love getting their face scratched.
1. Cats Have Pheromones On Their Face
Pheromones are little scent communicators released from glands all over the body. Different species (including us!) release pheromones, but they can only be detected by animals of the same species, like in cat-to-cat communication.
“All cats produce a wide range of pheromones that send different messages and meanings to other cats, which then influences behaviours,” Dr Matejka explains. Cat pheromones mark territory, give hints about the identity of a cat, create familiarity, enhance bonding, signal to sexual partners, help mother and kittens bond, self-soothe, signal happiness, and show stress or fear.
There are lots of pheromone glands on and near your cat’s face, like under the chin, on the lower ears, forehead, cheeks, and around their mouth (in addition to other parts of the body). When scratching your cat under their chin and on their cheeks, they’re covering you in their scent.
So, if we can’t detect them, then why does your cat want to douse you with pheromones? “That’s them telling you they’re comfortable around you and accept you as part of the group,” says Samantha Bell, cat expert at Best Friends Animal Society. “That’s love.”
2. Cats Think You’re Grooming Them
It’s not just the sharing of pheromones that builds bonds between cats, or with their humans. “Cats also express love by grooming each other,” Bell says. Whether your cat is licking you or you’re petting your cat, they’re both representatives of grooming. Your cat might be extra appreciative when you ‘groom’ them in places they can’t lick themselves—like under their chin or on their cheeks.
3. Cats Love The Feeling
Dr Matejka compares scratching a cat under the chin to a human getting a back rub—it just feels good. Signs that you’re petting your cat correctly (according to your cat) include:
- ears pointing upright
- pushing against your hand to encourage more pets
- relaxed expressions, including squinty eyes
- relaxed postures, like a slowly swishing tail
4. Cats Want Your Attention
Cats use head bunting and rubbing their cheeks against us to get our attention. According to Dr Matejka, your cat learned it from their mum who grabs the attention of her kittens with head bunts, nudges, and cheek rubs.
5. Cats Are trying to Detect Your Pheromones
You’ve been gone all day and your cat wants to know where you’ve been. “Cats may rub up on you to try to detect scents and pheromones from your hands and body,” Dr Matejka says.
If they smell something really interesting, they might even open their mouth and scrunch their face. No, they don’t think you stink, they’re just getting a better sniff using what’s known as the Jacobson’s organ.
6. Cats Have Itchy Face Or Chin Acne
Is your cat begging for more chin and cheek scratches lately? An itchy cat could be a sign of a skin or parasite condition, like feline acne, flea bites, or a food allergy. All these conditions could cause your cat to rub their cheeks and chin on you, furniture, and anything else that could provide relief.
“If your cat has an itchy head, you will see your cat scratching at it with its paws. Often, they’re also areas of redness, hair loss, crusting, and even bleeding if they truly are itchy,” Dr Matejka says. If you spot any of these signs, schedule a check-up with your vet.
Pro Tip: If you’re not familiar with feline acne, it’s typically caused by an overproduction of oil on the chin. This can block the hair follicles and cause your cat to have itchy and sometimes painful lesions. Swapping plastic feeding bowls for stainless steel and washing them before each meal is thought to reduce the risk of feline acne. If your cat has acne, don’t use human acne products and instead see your vet for cat-appropriate care.
Takeaway: Cats Love Having Just Enough Attention
Your cat shows affection by rubbing their cheeks, face, and forehead all over you and getting beloved scratches in return. So, should you rub your face on your cat? Besides a cat hair or two in the eye, Bell warns that forcing your cat to rub against you could scare them and end in a scratch you won’t enjoy. “But you could put your face near your cat’s head and see if they will do that,” she offers.
You could also stick to tried-and-true places most cats enjoy being petted—like their hind quarters. Try gentle strokes in the same direction their fur grows, and typically not the sort of strong scratches that a dog might enjoy. “The best way to bond with your cat is to figure out their favourite things to do and continue to do those things,” Dr Matejka says.
No matter where your cat prefers to be pet and how, Dr Matejka adds, “remember to never force affection on your cat. Your cat wants to be able to trust you and make decisions on their own.”