Why does my cat put his paw on me?
Cats use their paws to communicate a range of things the way we humans do with our own “paws.” When a cat places his paw on your face or your arm, it might mean one thing to one cat, and one thing to another. It can mean different things at different times. A person who touches you with his fist is not communicating the same thing as a person who caresses your cheek, or shakes your hand.
In researching this post, I started out by reading reports from cat owners about how their cats touched them with their paws. Here are a few of my favorites:
What these reports tell me is that there is more than one answer to the question, “Why does my cat put his paw on me.” Let’s take a look.
A cat may use her paw to get your attention
In this video, the cat owner is pointedly and deliberately ignoring her cat, even though Luna is sitting five inches from her face. It’s a bit of a harmless experiment on the part of the owner, but it shows how resourceful Luna is in trying to regain her mom’s attention and what role a paw touch might play.
First, Luna meows. That is Luna using her “I’m talking to you, human,” voice. You might not know this, but cats reserve meows for people. Cats communicate with other cats through scent, body language, expressions, and touch, but meows are a special noise they set aside for talking to us.
Next, Luna tries the paw. It’s a gentle paw, barely a touch at all, but it does elicit a response from mom: some raised eyebrows, an air kiss.
How do we know that the paw touch was a bid for attention? Because Luna responds with a quick head bunt. The head bunt is an affirmation of their bond. It's almost like she's saying, "Yes. Now we understand each other."
Luna then uses her paw a little more insistently and it has a stronger effect on Mom: this time she speaks to Luna. Luna responds with a more languorous head bunt, and a bit of allorubbing (a behavior similar to head bunting in which a cat rubs the side of her body against a family member) and then walks off.
Of course, we don’t know what Luna is thinking at that moment, but it could have been that she was satisfied with the level of attention she received from Mom, or she might have gotten frustrated and given up.
What should you do if your cat is using her paw to get your attention?
I would suggest that if your cat is politely asking for some attention, and you’re able to, that you give it. Some of us may have the mistaken idea that cats are aloof or completely independent, but it’s not true. Cats are social animals who rely upon their humans for absolutely everything, from food to companionship. Playing with your cat is good for your cat: it gives him much needed exercise and mental stimulation, and fulfills his biological need to play. And playing with your cat is good for you: it’s a joyful activity that builds a bond with your pet, and isn’t that the reason you got your cat in the first place?
Experts are divided about how much time and attention a cat really needs, but I like this recommendation from PetMd.com: four 10-minute play sessions per day. If your cat is asking for attention, he might not be getting enough.
A cat may use his paw to train you
Sometimes a cat uses his paw on you because he's learned that it works. What cat owner has not been woken by a kitty-paw alarm at some ungodly hour, asking for breakfast? Do you get up and fill the bowl? If so, your cat has trained you to respond to his paw.
If you haven’t experienced the “joy” of being woken by a cat paw on the face, here is Nemo to demonstrate how it’s done.
(There are other reasons why cats may be active just when we want quiet. Read, “Why does my cat yowl at night?” for more information about why your cat is active in the wee hours, and what to do about it.)
The bottom line is that a paw to the face works and your cat has learned that. Your cat has conditioned you to respond to her gentle command.
In the examples mentioned at the beginning of this post, cat owners reported that their pets used a paw to elicit a whole range of specific responses from their owners - from lifting an arm to allow the cat to snuggle, to being picked up and placed on a lap. It might not be food your cat is after, but she knows that you know what the paw tap means.
What should you do if your cat is using her paw to train you?
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If food is all your cat is after (and you'd like another hour of sleep), you can consider getting a gravity feeder, which ensures a continuous supply of dry food, like this PetSafe model. A timed cat feeder like the PETLIBRO model is another good way to prevent a kitty alarm clock, especially for a cat who can’t be trusted with continual access to dry food.
Otherwise, you have to decide if the "training" is something you want to reinforce or not. I got the sense in the examples above that the cat owners enjoyed the clear communication between them and their pets - they liked knowing exactly what the paw tap meant and they enjoyed accommodating their cats.
If that's not you, and you don't enjoy the behavior, you have to work on extinguishing the behavior with your cat, which is probably best done with the help of a cat behaviorist, and is beyond the scope of this blog post.
Your cat puts his paws on you to keep some distance
Here’s an interesting one. In this video, a pet cat, who clearly has a comfortable relationship with his guardian, is using his paw in a completely different way. It’s not a “Hey you! I need something!” tap-tap-tap, like Nemo above. It’s more of a rigid, outstretched leg that seems to be saying, “I don't want you to come too close with that thing in your hand.”
Have you ever been cuddling your cat only to have him place a paw, rather stiff-limbed, against your face? The effect is very, “Back up. You’re too close.”
We don’t know exactly what our cats are thinking when they perform this behavior but we do know that some of our cats may tolerate more petting from us than they really enjoy. To a point. And that may be what the firm paw to the face might mean.
We humans love to touch to show affection, and cats, with their soft fur and adorable faces are absolutely irresistible to us. But cats are not dogs, and they are very individual when it comes to how much petting they really enjoy. Some generous cats will allow you to pet them until they just can’t stand another minute of it.
What should you do if you think your cat is asking for some distance?
In the immortal words of Aretha Franklin, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Your cat is a living being with emotions, preferences, wants, and needs of his own. The law may say you own your cat, but a relationship with your cat is the thing that matters. A relationship of any kind is built on trust and respect. If you think your cat is asking you so very nicely for some distance, give it.
Your cat puts her paws on you to transfer scent
To a cat, scent is everything. Scent says something about who you are and where you’ve been, and probably supplies a whole host of data we humans can’t even fathom. Cats have scent glands on their heads, faces, flanks, tails, in their anal glands, and yes, in their paws, and they use these body parts to place their scent on objects, on each other, and on you.
Scent glands in the paws release pheromones that deliver chemical messages when a cat scratches or presses his feet on someone or something. A cat’s paws are special because they also contain eccrine glands, or glands that produce scent-laden sweat. A cat’s paws are positively loaded with scent glands.
Depositing scent on an object or person is not really about marking territory, claiming possession, or dominating, as some people think. To the cat, it’s about making his world smell like him – a smell that is familiar, comforting, and safe.
Cats in groups want the whole group to smell like each other. They want all the objects in their environment to smell like their group, too. When a cat places her paw on you, she is not marking you, but she is saying, “You are my family and we need to smell the same.”
Your cat is putting his paws on you to mimic you
They say when you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras. This is one those things. Chances are, if your cat is touching you with a paw, it’s for one of the reasons mentioned above.
And then there’s Toro. You’ve got to watch this:
どっちが指を上に乗せるか選手権 pic.twitter.com/578n6iXe8s— 癒月こなみ (@konamint) September 15, 2019
What is Toro doing? Is he playing? Is he annoyed that his owner, Yuzuki, is touching him, or, is he mimicking Yuzuki? Ask Toro and see what he says.
I didn’t think that cats were capable of, well, copycatting us. But science says they are! Claudia Fugazza, an ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest had been studying “do as I do” training in dogs. In “do as I do” training, a dog is first trained to perform a behavior, such as rolling over. The dog is then trained to copy a behavior he already knows. So, if the human rolls over and the dog is given the copying command, the dog is supposed to roll over, too.
Fugazza was working on this research with a Japanese dog trainer who also happens to own a pet shop and cat, named Ebisu. The cat, who is highly food motivated, liked to sneak into her owner’s dog-training classes at the shop for dog treats.
What the owner discovered was that Ebisu could copy familiar actions, just like the dogs. Ebisu could perform “do as I do” behaviors, like opening a plastic drawer and biting a string. But she could also imitate brand new behaviors, like touching a box. The incredible thing was that Ebisu understood the parallels between her body and her owner’s: when the owner used her hand, Ebisu used her paw. When the owner used her face, Ebisu used her face. You must watch this in action here:
Your cat is probably not putting his paw on you for these reasons
If you’ve been reading my blog posts for a while, you know I like science and facts. It’s too easy to anthropomorphize, which means attributing human characteristics to animals. Anthropomorphizing is not a compliment to cats. Cats are fine just the way they are. They’re not “better” if they are more like us. Worse, assuming that cats think like people and are motivated by the same things people are, doesn’t further our understanding of them.
Google “why is my cat putting his paw on me?” and you’ll get all kinds of crazy, anthropomorphized answers, like:
- “Your cat is testing you. She wants you to prove that you trust her not to claw your face.”
- “Your cat is showing that he trusts you because his paw is near your mouth and you might bite him.”
- “Your cat is returning the favor and petting you back.”
Cats are not as emotionally sophisticated as we are, and probably not cognitively capable of planning something as complicated (and frankly twisted) as a test of trust or love. And they don’t perform human behaviors like petting.
So, take that little paw on your face or hand for exactly what is: your cat trying to communicate something very, very specific to you. And listen.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Pierce, Jessica. “Why Do Cats Meow at Humans?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 5 Sept. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-dogs-go-heaven/201809/why-do-cats-meow-humans.
 Landsberg, Gary M., and Sagi Denenberg. “Social Behavior of Cats - Behavior.” Social Behavior of Cats, Merck Veterinary Manual, May 2014, www.merckvetmanual.com/behavior/normal-social-behavior-and-behavioral-problems-of-domestic-animals/social-behavior-of-cats.
 How Long Should You Play With Your Cats Each Day?, PetMD, 28 Dec. 2020, www.petmd.com/cat/care/how-long-should-you-play-your-cats-each-day.
 Paretts, Susan. “What Does It Mean When a Kitty Comes & Taps You With Its Paw?” Pets, 19 Nov. 2020, pets.thenest.com/mean-kitty-comes-taps-its-paw-5524.html.
 Johnson-Bennett, Pam. “How Cats Use Scent Communication.” Pam Johnson-Bennett Answers the Why, When & How of Cat Behavior Issues, 9 Sept. 2020, catbehaviorassociates.com/how-cats-use-scent-communication/.
 “Cats' Paws Are Fascinating Pieces of Anatomy: Pet Connection.” GoErie.com, GoErie.com, 4 Oct. 2019, www.goerie.com/entertainmentlife/20191007/cats-paws-are-fascinating-pieces-of-anatomy-pet-connection.
 Adler, HE., et al. “Did We Find a Copycat? Do as I Do in a Domestic Cat ( Felis Catus ).” Animal Cognition, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-020-01428-6.