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by K Marie Alto January 26, 2023 13 min read
Cat 🐈👩❤️👨parents love snuggling and annoying their little furballs, but there's one thing you can bet: they love annoying us just as much.
Whether we're trying to sleep😴, and they get the zoomies, they lay there looking cute for a belly rub that's clearly a trap, or putting their paws on our faces whenever they get the chance.
Speaking of, what's the deal with that? Why do cats like putting their paws on our faces as much as they do? Is there some meaning behind it, or is it just somewhere they can step when they feel like they want to put that foot somewhere?
Quite frankly, in the field of cat behavior, there is very little scientific research📚, and thus nobody knows for sure why cats do many of the things they do. Full disclosure, I’m not Dr. Dolittle👨⚕️, nor am I Antonio Madrigal (Encanto anyone?), so sadly 😔I can’t speak to animals.
One thing I’m 100% sure of though, only cats know for sure why they do what they do. So, in my opinion, anybody who tries to explain cat behavior should always caveat their ideas with “in my experience” or “in my opinion.”
With that said, setting the science aside, there are some hypothesis, or myths if you will, that may explain this behavior.
In today’s post I’ll discuss 8 of the most common hypotheses about why cats put their paws 🐾on your face. Spoiler alert, #3 may disappoint 😔 you a little bit. Keep in mind that just like with every other hypothesis out there, until proven true by scientific research, they will all remain opinions, anecdotes or simply myths.
As usual my blog is packed with research-backed 📚 knowledge. For pet parents looking for reliable, unbiased, and fact-based cat care guides, I have sprinkled some additional great ones throughout the post.
Let’s look into the most common reasons why cats like to put their paws on your face... in my opinion 😊
One of the fastest ways to get someone's attention is to touch them.
When a cat wants something, they might meow about it. If that doesn't work, they might come closer to you, where you can see them, and then meow about it. If that still doesn't work, they might climb up on you to grab your attention with a bit more, shall we say, insistence.
And, of course, tapping your face with their paw is usually a good way to get your undivided attention, even if it's an initially negative reaction. Sometimes your cat will even bite or lick you to get your attention.
Of course, all this tells you is that they want your attention for some reason.
Why they want your attention is a whole other story. Are they hungry and want you to feed them? Do they want cuddles or scritches? Do they want to play? That's up to you to figure out.
When we think of animals and scent marks, we usually think of dogs and their powerful noses. They aren't the only members of the animal kingdom to rely on their noses, though. Cats do scent marking too, and they do it in a few different ways.
One way is spraying, and of course, that's unwanted. It's the most powerful scent a cat has at their disposal, and it's used to mark territory more than possessions. Thankfully, a combination of spaying/neutering and training can help prevent a cat from spraying to mark their territory.
Another way is that face rub they do. When your cat walks up to you and puts their face right up in yours, and rubs their cheeks against you, that's your kittymarking you with a bit of their scent. They do this frequently because, of course, you're frequently washing your face washes that scent away.
Paw taps are another way to mark you.
Cats have scent glands on their paws, and those glands excrete small amounts of oil and pheromones to leave a tiny trail anywhere they walk.
It also infuses the surfaces they scratch at with their claws – which is why scratching is a multi-function habit – and a little touch of those paws on your face mark you as their human.
This is also why one cat might not tap you all that much, but if you have more than one, they both seem to do it a lot.
In a way, they're competing with each other to keep you marked as theirs (perhaps one of the greatest self-worth boosters for any cat parent)! You, of course, love them both equally but a little bit of competition won’t hurt them 😊
Your cat tapping your face with their paw may be an expression of love and affection.
This is another common hypothesis about why your precious little fur baby may be tapping your face with their paw. It’s one every cat parent, including myself, hopes will be confirmed as a fact one day, though I believe it simply from experience.
They snuggle up to you, they tap you, or put a paw gently against a cheek and leave it there. It's comforting for them to feel you breathing, feel your warmth, and share in your space.
The key here is that the touch is soft, gentle, and keeps the claws firmly sheathed. If they're prickling you with their claws, they may want something else, or their body language may have another meaning.
You can look for other signs that your cat is completely, utterly head-over-tail in love with you by looking at the rest of their body language.
Is their tail relaxed and curled around them or draped over your arm? Are they giving you a nice, long, slow blink, or even just keeping their eyes closed? Are they purring?
They're getting comfort out of your presence, and they're putting their presence right up front and center for you to get the same comfort.
As cute as all the above sounds, and regardless of how much I resist to believe this behavior might not be a true manifestation of love, my job here is to be as objective as possible rather than trying to write only about what your heart might want to read like most “cutesy” blogs out there do. This is the reason why we are the preferred pet parent source for many pet parents.
The truth is, the biggest question we cat parents might be afraid to get a conclusive answer to is do cats actually feel love? And if so, how do they show it?
There is a lot of disagreement even within the scientific community. Check out what some experts say:
"Although I wish we could, we cannot get into the brains of cats and know if they feel 'love,'" Dr. Stacy Choczynski Johnson, DVM…"It's a complicated emotion and this feeling of love is up for debate." - Salon.com
I Believe Cats Show Affection to Their Humans
"There's a misconception about cats not showing love to their owners, whereas dogs are very affectionate and demonstrate this love in various ways. But cats do actually show love and affection to their humans.” - Jessica Pierce Ph.D. | Psychology Today
First Things First: How Do you Define and Measure Love?
I guess from a scientific standpoint, the #1 hurdle in deciphering whether cats feel love towards their human companions lies in defining and measuring love itself.
For starters, “love” is a tough concept to explain and measure, especially when we are trying to understand it in a different species.
“Love is a very complex concept that isn't easy to quantify —even in humans,” - Kristyn Vitale | Cat Researcher at Unity College
The comforting part is that all the above are either opinions or non-conclusive studies 😊 so, let’s keep believing and hoping in our hearts that one day science can prove that our fur babies do love us.
For those of us who truly believe our cats do love us, and remind us of their love every day, here is a sweet video by Jackson Galaxy: Does my Cat Love Me? | 3:07 Video
Another likely reason why your fur baby may put their paw on your face is that they want you to wake up.
It's time for breakfast, and here you are, with the sheer audacity to be sleeping three minutes past when my stomach is growling? How dare you! I'm going to tap your face until you wake up and feed me! Bap bap bap.
Obviously, this kind of face tapping would only happen when you're in bed or dozing on the couch, or otherwise asleep when they want you for something.
If you're in a deep sleep, the zoomies and the clatters of upended glasses, and the loud, persistent meowing may not stir you. So, they turn to something a little more drastic that they know you'll react to.
Different cats have different patterns here, and some of them are more likely to just stand on your chest and meow in your face, pounce on your toes, or otherwise start disturbing you in some way to gain your attention. If your cat is particularly needy, this might happen to you more often.
Or, well, you know how it goes. I wasn't trying to wake you up, I was just playing, but now that you're up, you can get me some food… win win.
Of all hypotheses, in my opinion, this one is perhaps the closest to a theory. The truth is, cats can be both very intentional and have memory. This hypothesis may hold true if you have unintentionally trained your cat to associate a paw touch with a response. Let me explain.
If your cat ever happened to touch your face while you were asleep, and you interpreted that behavior as your cat telling you they were hungry, so you fed them, they might remember the end result of touching your face with their paw while you are asleep.
It’s what I like to call the cat-human training loop. Did I just coin another term in cat parenting psychology? It works something like this:
Cat takes action #1 – human interprets action and reacts – cat interprets human reaction and learns – cat takes action #1 again and realizes s/he gets the same human reaction – human has successfully been trained – repeat at will 😊
So, the next time they‘re hungry while you‘re asleep, they now know all they have to do is touch your face.
Case in Point About Cat’s Memory and Intention: My gentle giant angel Moo liked to bap empty box flaps like a boxer repeatedly hitting a punching bag. I don’t remember at what point I decided to distract him with food when he started boxing (the noise used to drive me nuts), but from that moment on he learned that every time he was hungry all he needed to do was to start boxing to get a snack. I guess he learned I was good at learning :-)
Cats are predators by nature, and part of that nature means they need to satisfy that prey drive by doing a little hunting. Sometimes it means leaping for the lights and trying to catch a stray moth.
Other times, the only outlet they have is that dangly little feather you drag around and that only moves when you're there to move it. So, when they're feeling a little frisky, and they want to play, they'll get your attention.
Unlike other forms of attention-gathering face taps, this one has a bit of a different set of body language behind it.
They might lightly swat at you the way they would swat at a flicking tail or a toy. They might bap you a few times or start playing with a stray tuft of hair or a bit of beard.
In some cases, they might even give you a few playful nibbles, though never enough to actually hurt you.
Cat’s need daily exercise and mental enrichment, so if you’re gone at work all day, play a 20-to-30-minute play session when you get home.
While almost every reason why your cat might be touching your face with their paws may be interpreted as a sign of attachment to you or, some reason they want to get your attention, this one is a little less happy.
If you're getting up in their space, if you keep picking them up and nuzzling them when they don't enjoy it, or when you're just generally being irritating to them, rest assured, they'll get tired of it.
At first, they'll squirm and protest or try to leave, but if you keep insisting, they'll put a paw firmly in your face and push you away.
Of course, this is just about your last warning. Once you reach this point, if you keep doing what you're doing, your fur baby might just use those claws they've kept hidden away.
That's when you remember that little mittens isn't just a cuddly ball of fur, they're a predator with knives on their toes, and those knives can be pretty dang sharp when they want to be.
Thankfully, it's generally pretty clear when you're pushing the boundaries that much, and even if you're not entirely aware of the line being crossed, it's a mistake you're only going to make once.
The biggest issues will be the wounds to your face and to your pride and the damage to your bond that you might need to take some time to repair.
Case in Point: Years ago, my little Sosa could not be picked up without a snarl and claws ready to free her from your grips. I had been working for some time picking her up and immediately putting her down to help her understand nothing bad would happen.
As she became less afraid, I would hold her for a second longer and longer. Well, this one day she seemed oddly ok with being held, so I held her a little longer… I’m talking like 10 seconds here… well that was a mistake! She squirmed her little body so fast, I didn’t want to drop her, so I held on and slowly bent over to put her down.
I wasn’t fast enough. Her claw cut right through my lip. It was bloody and painful, and completely my fault. So, listen to your kitty folks, body language and all.
This hypothesis is that the reason your cat touches your face is because you touch your own face, or because you touch the face of your loved ones, or because you touch their little furry face.
Science and vets used to think that the only creatures that did communal mimicry were primates and dogs. Dogs are more than happy to mimic the actions and behaviors of their parents, just like babies.
Cats, though, many just assumed were aloof, regal, independent critters that don't need that kind of bond.
Of course, you and I know that nothing could be further from the truth.
Some cats don't try any form of mimicry, but others will mimic certain small actions you might take – subtly enough that you might not even notice it. While some others are a lot more pronounced about it.
One of the most famous examples is Ebisu, a Japanese cat that loved treats so much she snuck into dog training classes and happened to pick up some training on the way.
Not only did she learn to mimic her human, but she also upended a whole field of animal cognition science in doing so.
After all cats like cheek scratches, so it stands to reason that you would like them too, and who better to provide them than your fuzzy little friend?
Have you ever considered that your cat might not be perfect?
I know it's a terrible thought to even suggest that about your fur baby, but it's true! Cats are clever, and they're smart, but they aren't infallible or perfect.
Sometimes, they're just stretching or making biscuits, and they happen to misjudge the space they're in and just shove a paw directly in your face.
Sure, it might be a little unpleasant for you to have a squirmy little furball shove a paw in your nose or poke you in the eye, but hey, they got a real nice stretch out of it and probably curled back up to keep dozing on your chest or in your arms. No harm, no foul.
So, yeah. Sometimes, your fur baby sticks their paws in weird places just because it's an accident in how they move. They weren't really intending to poke you in the face, but they aren't going to stop either because they're comfy and they like you, and you're going to keep petting them anyway, right?
It's one thing to know why your furball keeps touching your face. It's quite another to decide if you want to train it out of them. You certainly can train them if you know what you're doing and have the right treats on hand. The question is, should you?
Generally, it's up to you. Unless they're especially careless or your face is especially sensitive, you're probably fine letting them do what they want to do.
Also, since so many of the reasons they touch you are rooted in affection and bonding, you don't want to remove those avenues. At most, you want to redirect them. Train them to touch your arm rather than your face, for example.
The biggest risk out of anything is just disease. Cats are fastidious, but they're also animals; they clean themselves by licking themselves, and it's not like their tongue is sterile. Usually, you'll be fine, but if your fur baby is prone to sticking a paw in your mouth, nose, or eyes, or if they accidentally scratch you, it’s not ideal.
Otherwise, just enjoy the love they're sharing with you.
Does your furry lil friend just love to paw at your face? If so, have they given you any clues as to why they do it? I'd love to hear all of your hilarious stories about your fur baby, so be sure to leave those down below!
One more thing, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA (or anywhere but in China), 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beans online pet supplies store!
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 40K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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