Why does my cat head butt me?
You’ve stepped out of the house for an hour. When you return and lean over to give your cat a little pat, she’s all up in your grill, purring and rubbing her forehead against your cheek and chin, like you’ve been gone for a year.
What does a head-butting cat do?
The head butt is not one single gesture, but a range of behaviors. A cat may softly, languorously push his head against yours. Or, he might give you a brain-rattling bonk on the skull. Every cat is different, thus every head butting technique may be different.
While you regain your equilibrium, you might be wondering what it’s all about.
Head bunting, not head butting
Let’s get science-y for a minute. Even though a cat is most surely head butting you, the correct term used by animal behaviorists is head bunting.
Cats have scent glands in various places around their bodies, including their heads. The head glands used for bunting are located between a cat’s eyes and ears and they’re called temporal glands. Temporal glands produce a fatty substance containing pheromones that a cat can transfer from herself to objects, people, and other animals. The fur covering this area is usually the thinnest on the cat’s body and is sometimes a little oily from the gland.
Contrary to popular belief, a bunting cat is not “claiming” you, or trying to dominate you. A cat feeling insecure about his territory would leave a urine scent behind. This is not to say that cats don’t rub their scent glands on things to mark them, it’s just that head bunting is a far more complex communication behavior than simple “claiming” would describe.
The head bunt is first and foremost a social, friendly behavior. It’s what scientists call an “affiliative behavior,” an act designed to encourage closeness in a group of cats, or in this case, cats and people.
An affiliated or bonded group of cats will do things that cats who are strangers will not do. They will sit next to each other, entwine their tails, and groom each other. But most importantly, they will smell like each other. Bunting, and another behavior called “allorubbing,” in which a cat moves one side of her body against another cat’s body, is how they achieve this.
(Read more about allrubbing in this post, "Why does my cat stick his butt in m y face?")
We humans recognize family and friends by the way they look, but cats recognize members of their group by the way they smell. Group scent is very important for group identity in the cat world. A cat wandering by who does not share the group odor may be sent packing. So, a cat who head bunts you is saying, “You’re one of the group and you need to smell like us.”
When is head bunting not head bunting?
When head butting is really head pressing, a loving cat owner should worry. A cat who is not trying to deposit scent but is attempting to relieve discomfort in her head may press her head against you, the wall, or other objects. How can you tell the difference? If your cat is not “herself” – if she appears disoriented or if she’s irritable – it could be a sign of a neurological problem, such as a head injury or tumor, or even hypertension. This is a not a “wait-and-see” situation. An immediate trip to your veterinarian or an emergency vet is called for.
Why is my cat head bunting strangers?
If head bunting is an affiliative behavior that cats use only with their family, why does my cat sometimes rub up against visitors he’s never met before?
A cat may rub up against someone that is not part of his “group” but that doesn’t mean he is performing the head bunt behavior. Scent is not only how cats communicate, but how they get information about the world, too. At cat who rubs up against a stranger is trying to gather scent information from that person. We don’t know what information they are seeking, but we can imagine that they might want to smell the place the new person has just come from, and if there are other animals there.
One thing a stranger should never assume is that just because a cat is rubbing against them that the cat is seeking affection. A cat who is gathering data, not seeking love, may be startled to find herself getting petted. She may run off if the unwitting petter is lucky, or show her displeasure with a hiss or a swat if not.
What should I do when my cat head bunts me?
Pam Johnson-Bennett, a cat behavior expert and author, offered the best advice about what to do when a cat bunts you to readers of petmd.com. “You should be thrilled that they’ve chosen you. Enjoy it and take it as a compliment that you’re worthy of their affection – that they’ve deemed you good enough,” she said.
But do not necessarily respond. “Some cats may not be comfortable with a response,” she explained. It depends on your relationship with the cat. If you are bonded with your cat, you can head bunt back, or offer some other token of your affection, like petting. If your relationship with this cat is just developing, there’s nothing wrong with not reciprocating. Rather, continue to build trust over time.
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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.
 Rodan, Ilona, Heath, Sarah. Feline Behavioral Health and Welfare. Elsevier Health Sciences, 6 Aug 2015. p 36. https://www.elsevier.com/books/feline-behavioral-health-and-welfare/unknown/978-1-4557-7401-2
 “Cat Behavior: Why Do Cats Rub Against You?” Home, PetMD, 14 Apr. 2016, www.petmd.com/cat/behavior/cat-behavior-why-do-cats-rub-against-you.
 Tolford, Kathering. "Cat Head Butting: What Does it Mean?" PetMD. petmd.com/cat/behavior/cat-head-butting-what-does-it-mean. Accessed 12 Sep 2019