There are a lot of odd behaviours that quite a large number of cats seem to engage in, enough for that behaviour to seem to be more of a feline or cat thing rather than just an odd quirk of an individual cat.
Some of these feline behaviours are much more common than others. Scratching, purring, and kneading, for instance, are common to most every cat. By contrast, biting then licking (or licking then biting), nibbling on human fingers, and sleeping at the foot of the bed are behaviours a lot less cats will engage in, but quite a few seem to do regardless of the fact that they’re not across-the-board types of feline behaviours.
Touching a human face with a paw and holding it there, or even pawing at a human face in a manner something like gently stroking or petting is one of those behaviours, I feel. A lot of cats do it, some more frequently than others, and so it seems likely to me it’s a cat thing rather than a quirk of the odd cat or two.
Either way, there aren’t any research studies that have been conducted on the matter (to my knowledge at least – let me know if you know of relevant ones in the comments section please!). Totally fine, but it means that none of the theories I’ll be posting in this article are backed in any way by science. They’re just guesses, based on my intuition or the intuition of others around the net whose suggestions I’ve found on forums, question-and-answer style sites, the comments section on other posts of mine – basically around the net.
Let me know if any of the theories strike you as more likely than others, if your cat does this, which theory you feel describes his or her behaviour better, and if you can think of any more theories that didn’t happen to make it to this list. Can’t wait to hear your stories & thoughts in the comments below! Without further ado…
Theories That May Explain Why Cats Touch Human Faces with Their Paws
1. To get your attention.
Yes, cats definitely need attention, and to be honest, a lot of cats need way more attention than many would assume cats ever could need, essentially being on the verge of being “attention whores” so to speak. Some people love this, some people hate it. While you may love this or struggle with a really attention-demanding cat depending on how much attention you feel you can give, either way, a lot of times – this act does seem to be a way of grabbing attention from you. What’s more “in your face” (pun intended) than a paw to your nose, cheek, or chin? Hard not to pay attention to that!
2. As a form of affection, like he/she is petting you.
There are a lot of theories around how exactly cats touching human faces translates to being a form of affection, but no matter whether or not you believe those particular reasons behind the behaviour ring true, there does seem to be a massive case to be made for the basic idea that it is an affectionate act.
3. As a form of mimicry, copying your petting actions and returning them back to you.
There may be something to the theory that cats copy our actions, like the way we sit, or the way we stand; just in general behaviours of ours that they see and mimic back at us. If this mimicry is ever proven to be a thing, I’m guessing touching our faces and stroking or petting them would definitely be at the top of the list of behaviours that would fit into this category.
4. As a form of testing you – asking you to trust he or she won’t hurt you with claws.
I’ve read this theory being suggested by a few different people. It’s an interesting one, though I have no idea how you would even begin to try testing it out. It seems like we may anthropomorphize a little too much with this one for me to wholeheartedly believe it, as I don’t think cats can really conceptualize testing you, personally, let alone testing you by putting his or her paws near your face without scratching. That being said, you never know! This could turn out to be true, meaning felines are far more intelligent than most would ever think to give them credit for.
5. As a form of showing trust – that you won’t bite his or her paw although it’s next to your face.
Along a similar vein, yet completely different and even the opposite nearly of the last point. A cat should be able to conceptualize you might bite him or her with your mouth for this to make sense. I have no problem with this part of the theory, cats can definitely understand a mouth is for eating and if you pretend to bite a cat that’s never been “play” bitten before, a cat will typically yelp and try to run, afraid. But the cat also has to think about putting his or her paw near your mouth, while trusting for it not to be bitten, and sort of think that this might be a form of showing trust? This feels like a stretch to me, but let me know if you think cats are possible of this intricate a thought in the comments. Maybe it’s a more subconscious thing than along the lines I’m thinking. Like they trust you enough to let their hands go near the place that might hurt them.
Picture from post This One
6. Because he or she was stretching & your face was a comfortable resting place once done.
Cats love to stretch, and who can blame them – stretching is good for us as well and if we did it as much as a cat, I’m sure we’d have a heck of a lot less tension in our shoulders!
After a cat’s done stretching, he or she sometimes rests a paw in an odd place, so why not your face? It’s a warm, soft, pretty padded place if a cheek or a nose is picked. Makes sense to me.
7. Because he or she is reaching toward you affectionately and your face happens to be the closest part of your body.
One of my cats, Bjorn, sticks his arm out straight while stretching to demand cuddles. How do I know he’s demanding cuddles? Because if I cuddle him straight after he’s super pleased, and ceases the behaviour.
Sometimes, however, he’ll stretch out toward me affectionately when we’re sitting on the couch and he’s already snuggled up next to me happily. I can imagine if my face happened to be lying in the spot he was reaching toward me affectionately in, he’d simply let his paw rest on my face instead of on my leg or hand or wherever he happened to be reaching.
8. When you’re asleep: to wake you up.
This needs no real explanation. We all know how well something on our face works toward waking us up in the morning – even for those of us who are particularly difficult to wake. A lot of pet parents seem to have cats who do this. Mine choose to wake me up in the morning with meows and cries for kibble, but I’m 100% certain a paw on my face would be just as effective. It’s my own fault, however. I choose to use them as a cat alarm clock that prevents me from sleeping in. I could always feed them by hand once in the evenings only, and let the PetSafe Automatic Pet Feeder I bought to give the boys food throughout the day handle the mornings for me.
9. To tell you he/she wants something, like food or to be let out.
This seems to be a really common, really obvious way to get a message across based on what a lot of pet parents report. If your cat wants something in particular, like for you to open the front door to let him or her out, for you to refill kibble or hand over some snacks, it’s really likely you’ll already know this is why your cat touches your face, as you’ll almost certainly go to do the thing he or she wants from you after being ordered (and maybe even pestered if you were asleep when this happened) to do the deed.
10. To ask specifically for cuddles & to be pet.
I’ve alluded to this a lot throughout this article, but I’ve never outright said it. A lot of times cats put their paws on your face, not just for attention, but to specifically demand to be pet and cuddled. I have no idea what the approximate percentage of cats who do this behaviour specifically want this one thing as a result, but my guess is it’s high, and that way over 50%, maybe even 70 or 80% want cuddles when they touch a human face.
11. Because he or she’s feeling playful & trying to get you to play.
While it’s not always the case, cats will often nip and bite at feet, legs, and ankles when they’re feeling playful and want to get your attention specifically so you can help them let out their hunter prey drive. Similarly, some cats seem to paw at faces in order to get their pet parents’ attention for a round of play.
If you think this might be what your cat is after, and it happens quite often, try investing in some toys cats can play with by themselves, my boys’ favourites being cat springs and cat kick toys like the Kong Kickeroo. They’ll help your cat get out energy when you’re not around as well as when you’re unfortunately too busy to play when they happen to get that urge to hunt.
12. When you’re holding him/her: because your face or nose is a comfortable resting place for his or her paw.
My husband Thomas likes to hold our cats close to his face when he cuddles them, and they typically oblige. He normally puts them down after a short, friendly squeeze, but if he holds them for long enough, they’ll typically rest a single paw on his nose, on his beard, or on his cheek – whatever’s closest or happens to be in a nice position for resting their paws. I absolutely think this is a matter of comfort since they don’t typically do it until it’s been a while that they’ve been held.
13. Also when you’re holding him/her: to keep your face a little distance away & maintain a personal bubble.
This may be a secondary reason why the boys like to put a paw on Thomas. I’ve seen it mentioned around the net a couple times, since we all know how much cats like their personal bubble sometimes. I definitely think it’s possible, and one of my two cats, Bjorn, may even mean something further when he puts a paw on Thomas’ face…
14. Again when holding him/her: to prevent you from giving kisses if you do and your cat dislikes them.
I also found this reason listed online somewhere, and likely never would’ve thought of it until it was mentioned. Our first cat, Avery, loves kisses. He understands they’re a form of affection, will never wince or run away when we kiss him, and will even rub his face on the edges of our glasses if we’re holding him and kissing him, and thus he’s within reach of our specs.
That being said, our second cat, Bjorn, absolutely doesn’t like being kissed – most likely because he still hasn’t grown used to them, as over the past few months, he’s not recoiling like he used to to being kissed on the head. He was also terrified of being “eaten” and would run and cry if you made “om nom” noises near his face. Again – he’s getting used to this type of play, so sooner or later, we’re guessing he’ll be completely un-phased and not even budge at any of this, just like Avery. He nearly is already.
But in the meantime, if he’s already being picked up, and he is not the biggest fan of kisses, I can see him wanting to keep Thomas’ face at a little distance in part to prevent the potential for kisses, which do happen quite often when cuddles are being delved out. Hopefully this won’t be the case for long, and he’ll grow to see kisses as a form of human affection as Avery firmly does.
15. To scent you and mark you as his or her own.
Cats have scent glands on the pads of their paws, and so when they touch your face, just like when they rub up against it with their upper lip and whiskers, they leave their smell on you and sort of mark you as their own territory.
I personally think this may be a part of the whole story, but definitely isn’t enough of an explanation all on it’s own.
Your Thoughts on Cats Pawing Human Faces?
Why do you think cats paw at, touch, and sometimes even rest their paws on human faces for quite some time?
Have your cats ever done this? What type of touching do your cats do? Is it a paw that stays motionless on your face for a long time, a short time? Is it a pawing motion, something like human petting?
Why do you think your cats do this? Are there multiple reasons? One overwhelming one?
Which explanations do you think are more likely to explain why cats in general touch human faces with their paws? Which do you think are the least likely reasons?
Love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and stories in the comments down below!