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.
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 haven’t yet 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!
I’m wondering if the paws on the face thing is a boy-cat behaviour principally ? My mum’s 2 boy cats liked to lay on your chest if you were in bed, purr and touch your face & bottom lip with a paw. My own boy cat lays on me and purrs & purrs & then reaches out his paw to touch my face. None of my pet girl cats have ever done this – they all like to groom (lick) hands and faces ! Ouch!! I think it is definitely a display of affection, love.
Elise Xavier says
I’m not sure. The one we’ve had that does it the most (like way more than any of the other cats) is female. One of our boys does it sometimes, but really rarely.
Janet Boreham says
I have a female cat when I’m in bed she sits next to me and taps her paw on my face , and stares at me . She only does this before I go to sleep .
My boy cat started doing this as he reached about 8 months old and he only does it when he’s very pleased (paired with lots of purring and/or kneading)
While it may seem like it should be a one size fits all gesture, I believe that it is different – with not only in the ‘way’ that particular cat is touching you, but may also it vary based on that specific cat’s personality, as well as the intention behind it at that particular time/ situation.
It’s clear that some will do it for attention – an indicator that they want something from you (to eat, go out or play), maybe aa a way to push you away/ out kd their personal space when you’re too much in THEIR face. It’s also apparent when they’re doing it in an attempt to mark you as their own property, which may also be followed by an aditional gland/ cheek rub (esp when there are other cats in the household) and then…. Then there are the times they do it strictly as an expression of their affection for you.
My personal experience being the latter, is always clear as day to me. While my (fresh) boy isn’t the biggest snuggler or sit on your lap kind of cat – it is so obvious when he seeks attention all the same. BUT when he touches my face – usually a cheek, but more recently has been obsessed with my lips – it’s very odd bc of the way he looks at me while he’s doing it…. almost like he’s saying “I cherish you”. It’s just totally weird sometimes bc it’s like he’s actually holding my face while he tries to gaze into my eyes & say he adores me. He doesn’t want anything from me, he isn’t trying to push me away, and sometimes he’ll do it once then be on his way – or he’ll start with holding my cheek, then he’ll touch my mouth a few times in the most slow motion, gentle type of way… and it just seems so, so bizarre. Sometimes it almost makes me wonder if he’s not some reincarnation of a person attempting to communicate with me! .Of course thats not the case, but it is occasionally off putting when he does it while staring at me for a bit tooo long. Bottom line – cats are just weird weird creatures!
I think they know it’s where we put food and my cat I think touches my mouth when she’s hungry as if to say “put food in my mouth” lol.
Sharon Phelps says
My cat does this for a couple different reasons. If my daughters holding her it’s to keep her face away from her. She’ll put her paw on her face and turn her head as far away as possible, like she’s looking over her shoulder. She doesn’t get along with my daughter very well and is definitely telling her to leave her alone and no kisses.
When she does it to me it’s at bedtime. She sleeps with her head on my shoulder/chest so I can easily pet her and most night she wraps her little paw around my neck like she’s giving me a hug and rests her other paw somewhere on my face then looks at me with the slow blinking eyes. Some nights if I’m talking to her she’ll put her paw on my mouth like telling me to be quiet she’s trying to sleep lol.
November 2020 – I looked this up to see if others were experiencing this same issue and apparently it is not as unique as I thought! My cats are demanding and have both my wife and I pretty well trained. When we are both asleep in the morning, my cats wake us up by placing their paw on my lips, face or eyes to wake us up to feed them. If one of us doesn’t respond or pushes him off, he’ll go to the next person until one of us gets up and feeds them OR pushes them convincingly enough for them to stop! At least for a while. We usually give them a snack around 10PM and we are not allowed to be late. It seems as if they can tell time! The meowing starts and when I look up, we have three cats sitting in a half circle – all staring at me and demanding their treat with no uncertainty! Wouldn’t change a thing 🤯
The most affectionate of my three cats is Alfie a Russian Blue. He is always demanding attention in one form or another. I have more pictures of him laying on my chest then I do have my own children who are now grown. When he lays on my chest I of course pet him and he purrs and purrs and purrs and he will reach up with his paw and just touch my face very quickly. Sometimes he’ll touch my neck or throat but mostly it’s my right cheek which is closest to his right paw. He ALWAYS lays on his left side, even when he’s not laying on me. When he wants attention elsewhere in the house he will stand with his back paws to our leg or a close object and he will move his leg up and down until we pick him up. We call this action “humping” even though it’s not humping but we just don’t have any other word for it. He likes to be flipped over on his back and have his chest rubbed while he purrs and he’ll sometimes reach up and touch my face also. Sometimes when I sleep in another room due to my husband snoring it’s in the room where they’re usually fed and have their litter boxes. I obviously don’t lock them out of that room but when he’s hungry or if my husband gets up at stupid o’clock in the morning he thinks it’s time to wake up and eat so he’ll climb on me and boop my nose. If I ignore him he’ll take a single claw to my lip and pull my lip down until I get up and feed him.
One of the 2 black cats also loves attention and he will come and take it. The other night I was laying in bed on my side with my hands tucked under the covers midnight jumps on the bed runs along the length of my body rubbed his face in mine and because I didn’t love him back because he had me trapped he bit my cheek and ran out of the room. Jelly Bean the other black cat she doesn’t like to be picked up at all and she only wants attention when I get out of the shower showtime in jump up on the close toilet lid and let me pet her and love on her until she’s done with me and then she leaves. She also loves attention when she first comes in from outside. Other than that she doesn’t want anything to do with anybody. Cats are weird!
Jean A Miller says
I have a rescue silver cat that apparently uses her paws, face, rump and everything to communicate. She started by sleeping on her back on my shoulder with her paw on my mouth or eye. It progressed to her stroking my face. Sometimes the paw is on my mouth if she is sleeping and I am quiet. Sometimes my mouth gets covered if she is sleeping or attempting sleep and I talk or sing. Two totally different messages. Also, she seems to try to wrap her right paw around my side sometimes with morning wakes as if in a hug. I am now official cat lady. I always had dogs.
Elise Xavier says
Oh my god, she sounds absolutely amazing! What a personality 🙂
Congrats on joining us in the “cat lady club” – hard to resist joining after even just one lovely cat enters your life. 💖
One of my cats is very “handsy” — she touches and taps a lot. Sometimes, it’s a gentle tap on the cheek to get my attention. Others, it’s a paw on my chin to pull my face closer for a smooch. She also seems to try petting us when we pet her. If she’s napping on me, she likes to hold my face in her paws. She’s just a really touchy cat, and all of her taps and pats mean something different depending on the situation.
I definitely think some cats are capable of mimicry, since she didn’t always give “kisses” (rubbing her lips/the very front of her muzzle against our noses) — it was a behavior she only began after I started kissing the top of her head while we cuddled, and she watched me kiss my S.O. Now, if he and I kiss, or she hears a kiss sound, she comes running so she can do her weird little cat smooches to everyone. She also presses the top of her head against your lips after she gives you a smooch, and will wait like that until she receives one back. She’s a really affectionate little weirdo, and very adept at picking up on human behavior.
Kristen Cinque says
My cat Mary Jane (almost 2) loves to touch my face only when I’m laying down in bed. Mostly in the mornings but sometimes at night too. I used to think it was her way of waking me up to feed her, but she more often than not wakes me up to give her love. I think this because she’ll come paw at my face even though I’m awake (her walking on me wakes me up she’s a chonky girl) She’s very picky about when she receives love. Even when I’m giving her attention she will still continue to paw at my face which leads me to believe it’s her way of asking for love and giving me love at the same time. She has sharp claws so sometimes I get little cuts because she hates having her claws clipped. She’s a long hair so it’s not easy. She’s my little baby and I love her so much. She’s a mommas girl and my boyfriend hates it haha
My cat gidjet.
She is like a dog! She knows. No , up, down , buggie, get in here., no matter my tone. As for waking up, she always has food and water. If not. She will throw her cuteness at me acting like she wants to be pet and then be right out of reach for you to get up or closer to her dish. Lol. The alarm clock, she hates is when she yells at me. As soon As I shut it off it’s back to bed. Every morni g I wake up. Her paw is on my face. She some times hugs my neck. My bf sleeps on the out side, I’m on the inside next to the wall. She now age 7, if I’m on my tummy will paw t my arm , because she wants next to the wall to sleep with me. Like asking me to move. She is to funny.
I use to walk her on a leash. And she knew she had to put it on before going out. Be for fixing her she learned how to play fetch on her own. Amazing cat I have.
Raymond Thomas says
The leaving scent might be a very good reason for it since my cat seems to do it more often after I have gotten a shower.
#16 When Mao lies on my chest as I pet and talk to him, after a minute he puts his paw against my lips and presses. He’s telling me to stop talking, leaving me to wonder if it was something I said or my breath!
Tarbet Balfour says
AS A FORM OF AFFECTION, LIKE HE/SHE IS PETTING YOU… my cat has done this for years. looking at all the theories. This is the one for her. as it happens when cuddled and petted and talked to. I have had many siamese cats over 60 years. She is the first ont to do this.
Angie Zapton says
I just got my boy Oreo (a 4 year old tuxedo kitty) 3 weeks ago. Since his second night home, he curls up either above/around my head with his paws on my forehead, or on the pillow next to me curled around my hand. Overall, he is a sweet and very affectionate kitty. He loves giving kisses, doing the bite/kiss combo, curling up on my chest, grooming me, etc. His nighttime behavior is the sweetest thing I have ever seen. He has to be touching me in some way. He sleeps with my mom too, but usually at the foot of her bed.
I suffer from chronic migraine, and I swear he already recognizes them. When I have one, he’s curled around my head similar to how he sleeps, but with his front paws on each of my temples. He ever so gently paws at them until I fall asleep. I honestly couldn’t ask for a better kitty!
Linda Tanzini says
Years ago I was scolding, probably rather loudly, one of my children. My cat walked accross the room, stretched up and gently but firmly touched my face as if to say no more of this or I’m going to get tougher!!!. I don’t remember her ever doing it again. Once in awhile we still laugh about this! Needless to say I tried not to yell at my kids in front of her which wasn’t easy with 3 daughters very close in age. Thank’s for your manh interesting articles, Linda
Jones is my first cat ever, I have only ever had dogs so I am getting accustomed to the way cats are which is immensely fun and rewarding . I love him so much ! Jones loves to groom me – arms, hands, face; it is like getting a full wash sometimes . He mainly does this at night when he’s awake! I’ve noticed when he is lying in bed across my chest ( he’s a chatty cat and talks to me and tells me to move on my back if I am sleeping on my side !) he seeks out my face with his paws, even if my arm is available . I sometimes try to hide my face but he persists until he finds it . He keeps his paws pressed on my face as long as he is there and I can also feel his claws going in and out although he never hurts me. He looks at me adoringly (I think lol!) or he goes to sleep like this. If I am asleep and he wants me to wake up he licks my mouth and nose until I am awake !He never does do this with my husband , it’s only me . I just think it’s a sign of affection from him although I’ve never had a cat before so have I no real experience in the subject.
Molly Kearney says
OMG my cat is a pro at this! He likes to snuggle up near my head while I’m sleeping and he puts his feet in my mouth!!! I think it’s because he’s just curious or (of course) wants attention. But I know all about this behavior! And I’m really glad that you brought it up! We need to talk about these kitty quirks…