Why Do Cats Headbutt?
You love your cat and most of the time you are pretty sure they love you, too. You buy them countless toys, give them lots of their favorite treats, and purchase one fluffy bed after another. But even with all that expensive show of affection, your cat doesn't really feel at home until your whole household smells … like them. And that includes you. Which is where headbutting comes in.
When your cat lightly touches their forehead to yours, or they push their tiny head against your leg, they are depositing a little bit of their scent on you. So they may feel you need a little bit more perfume (kitty scented). Or they might think you have spent enough time in front of Netflix and it's time to play. We look at the three main reasons why your cat headbutts you.
What Does It Mean When a Cat Headbutts You?
If you are especially lucky to be a favorite human to a friendly feline, you might experience a cat smooshing their head against yours, rubbing their face all over yours. Awww. Sometimes this head-to-head contact behavior has some force behind it, feeling like a cat headbutt. But the correct term for this endearing behavior is actually head bunting. Head bunting is when a cat rubs their scent glands against another object, releasing their scent onto a new surface.
3 Reasons Why Your Cat is Headbutting You a.k.a. "Head Bunting"
One thing is for certain. Head bunting, when done lightly, is the cutest thing ever. But this feline performance is actually rich in behavior function.
1. Your Cat is Scent Marking
Feline foreheads are soft, fluffy, and full of scent glands. Scents, or smells, are extremely important to felines (both domesticated and wild) because they help cats engage, and communicate with, their environment. Cats produce a lot of scents and have scent glands all over the bodies—including the front paws, underside of the tail, cheeks, chin and lips, and the forehead.
Each time a cat makes contact with a surface by rubbing their scent glands against it they leave pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals that act as little communicators between animals of the same species.
"Cats have scent glands on their foreheads, and head bunting toward a human is performed to deposit those scents as an affiliative display," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, author and owner of Cat Behavior Associates.
So, when your cat starts bunting your head, they are intentionally leaving their own scent smack dab on your face. Thoughtful, right?
2. Your Cat Prefers Familiarity
You might think it's weird to know that your cat's scent is all over your face now, but to your cat, it's a wonderful thing! Now you smell like them! And really everything in your home smells like your cat, just like they want it to. So your face might as well be included. Cats want the location they call home to smell familiar, and nothing smells more familiar than your own self-made perfume. Depositing their scent around your household, and on you, helps keep your cat comfortable and relaxed in their environment.
"It [bunting] is an affectionate way of combining scents (yours and theirs) to reinforce familiarity and bonding," Johnson-Bennett says.
It's not just our house cats that do this behavior, either. Large feline species, like lions, also do the head bunting behavior when they see a familiar face or come home to the pride from a hunting trip. This makes them feel more relaxed, letting them know that members of the group are still present and accounted for.
In a home with other animals your cat loves and trusts, they might head bunt the dog or another feline family member, creating a sort of comforting communal scent amongst pets.
3. Your Cat is Seeking Attention
You were at work all day and just came home to relax and eat not-so-healthy food in front of the TV and here comes your cat, climbing onto your lab and pushing their delightful face against yours. Your cat missed you and they want your attention! So put down that fried delicacy and give your kitty some lovin'. You should feel lucky they chose you (says your cat).
How to Respond to Your Cat's Head Bunting
The majority of the time your cat is head bunting you it does have affectionate connotations. If you would rather they didn't do this behavior to you or the tiny, loud human you created (a baby), just gently pick up your kitty and offer them something else to rub on like a good scratching post, cat tree, or a favorite toy.
There are times when head bunting occurs because your cat is feeling stressed or uncertain in their current situation. It's important to be observant of the behavior and aware of when it happens. Did you just come home from a long day at work? Or are there new friends over or lots of loud people in the house? The context matters.
If you think your cat is being affectionate and wants some one-on-one time go ahead and offer up some slow, gentle pets—even very softly nuzzle your face close to theirs. But if your cat displays other concerning body language cues alongside the head bunting behavior, such as wide or dilated eyes, ears flat on head, growling, hissing, tucked or twitching tail, or attempts to swat or bite, your cat is not feeling happy. Don't keep trying to touch them. Instead, offer them rest time alone in a quiet room and consider what is different in the environment that could be upsetting to your kitty. Make sure your home is cat-friendly, with lots of places for your cat to bathe in the sun, climb, hide, and sleep.
If you ever find your cat forcibly pushing their head against a hard surface or standing with their head facing downward in a corner, that may not be head bunting. It could be indicative of head pressing, a potentially serious sign that your cat has a health condition and needs to be seen by your veterinarian ASAP.
Cats are incredibly social creatures that communicate through their senses and body language. Head bunting is just one of many behaviors that cats do that leave us intrigued and loving them even more. The next time your cat "head butts" you, consider what they may be feeling … or smelling.