Cats are curiously contradictory. Just when it seems that your cat prefers to spend time alone, his olfactory sense and his need to feel secure drives him to interact affectionately with you. Nudging, leaning, head butting and brushing up against you are some of the ways in which he bonds.
Your cat nudges you to create a scent exchange. Cats have scent glands in their foreheads, chins, lips and cheeks: Your cat is marking you with his scent from these glands when he shoves his head against you. He also reads your scent by brushing his body up against you and then grooming his fur to taste it.
Your cat's sense of smell is 200 times stronger than that of a human, making him very sensitive and reactive to odors. He marks his environment with his scent to make him feel safer and help keep him calm. As your cat brushes up against furniture and rolls around on the floor he is using the scent glands located on his head as well as others on his flanks and tail to exchange his scent with his surroundings to create a feeling of familiarity.
Scent exchange facilitates bonding between your cat and yourself. If you return home after being away and your cat runs up to you and starts nudging and wrapping his body around your legs he is attempting to re-mark you with his scent and the scent of his environment. He sees you as a part of his colony. When you reach down and stroke his fur you are participating in the colony scent exchange and increasing the bond between you two. Head butting and head nudging are other ways that cats try to bond with their owners.
Cats sometimes nudge to encourage a grooming response from their owners. Your cat licks his own fur to taste the scents he has picked up, to clean himself and to regulate his body temperature. When he nudges you, it is sometimes his way of encouraging you to participate in the grooming process.
Other Tactile Behavior
Nudging is not the only tactile behavior cats use to exchange scent with their environment. When your cat kneads his paws on your lap or couch, he's using the scent glands between his toes to mark with his scent. Fortunately the scent from cat glands is not strong enough for humans to perceive: Your cat is driven to share his scent as much as he can.
Nancy Lovering is a writer, photographer and teaching assistant. She took novel writing at Langara College and photography at British Columbia Institute of Technology. She obtained her teaching assistant certificate through Delta School District Continuing Education. She previously worked as an assistant controller while in the Certified General Accountants program, and has training in dog psychology through Custom Canine Teaching Ltd. in Vancouver, BC.