By Katherine Tolford
After a long day at work you may come home to find your cat greets you with a strong head bunt on your knee, face, leg, or any available part of your body.
While it may seem like just a playful form of interaction it’s actually a significant gesture that’s reserved exclusively for members of a cat’s colony.
Head Bumping as Bonding Ritual
“When cats head bunt they’re creating a communal scent in a free-roaming universe. Cats recognize each other by scent first and foremost,” said Pam Johnson-Bennett, a cat behavior expert and author of seven books on cat behavior.
Head bunting, which most of us have been mistakenly referring to as head butting, is a way for cats to exchange scents so that everyone in their environment—their colony—smells the same. It’s similar to a jowl or cheek rub, which is also done to leave their scent on the things and people they have claimed, but it is not exactly the same.
Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant who has been featured on Animal Planet, says bunting is a form of bonding.
“They’re saying ‘I love you. You’re so wonderful but you’re also a little stinky. Let’s get you smelling like us,’” Johnson said.
Cats do that by activating the scent glands, which excrete pheromones on the area of their head just above the eye but below the ear. Johnson affectionately refers to these areas as “male pattern baldness spots” because a cat’s fur can get a bit sparse there as he ages.
Social Rank Determines Which Cat Head-Bumps
Bunting ranks higher than urine marking, which is usually done by a more subordinate cat to avoid conflict. Within a multiple cat household or environment, it’s the dominant cat, the one with the higher social rank in the household, that does the head bunting.
“It’s not the subordinate, shy, squirrely cats that bonk other cats. It’s the confident cat, the one who is everyone’s friend in the house. His purpose is to spread the colony smell and groom everyone,” Johnson said.
I Just Bumped to Say ‘I Love You’
Cats who are bunting may stride toward you while purring or flop over on the floor a few times before they make contact with you.
Johnson-Bennett says there’s softness to a cat’s face when he’s in head bunting mode.
“Their whiskers and pupils are relaxed. Their ears are also relaxed. They’re not pricked up like they’re getting ready to hunt,” she said.
The process may also involve a bit of alternate head rubbing on a cat’s targeted person or animal and the leg or arm of the furniture. Although contact with the furniture or other objects likely incorporates more jowl rubbing along the glands in their lips.
“It’s like a mutual love session between a person and the furniture. We don’t always realize that cats live in a very scent laden world. Humans are visual. We forget that there are so many scent glands on them. It’s like they’re leaving little kitty text messages,” Johnson said.
But those messages say more than just “Fluffy was here”; they’re a universal expression of friendship and affection regardless of species.
Johnson-Bennett says her cat frequently head bunts her dog.
“My dog usually backs away. He looks like he’s thinking ‘I don’t get your behavior. It does nothing for me but you’re nice around me.’ He doesn’t get it but it works out for them anyway,” she said.
How to Respond to Your Cat’s Head Bump
While a dog may not know how to respond, there are some appropriate ways for pet parents to reciprocate. It can be an opportunity to build or enrich the bond between you and your cat.
“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,” Johnson said.
If you have a close relationship with your cat you can head bunt them back or simply offer your forehead, scratch their chin, pet them on their head or talk sweetly to them.
Cats head bunt when they’re happy, not when they feeling aggressive, fearful, or reclusive. But Johnson-Bennett cautions that you should know your cat’s likes and dislikes.
“Some cats may not be comfortable with a response. So wait until it head bunts you the next time. Then maybe you can reach out your hand to build trust.”
Johnson agrees that it’s important to build a bond before you reciprocate.
“The more you foster a relationship with your cat the more she will want to head bunt you.”
If you don’t quite have that relationship with your feline, she says, you can nurture it along with soft brushing, giving treat rewards, or just communicating with her by simply kneeling down at her level, low to the ground, and encouraging her to come over to you.
Head Bumping vs Territory Marking
Johnson-Bennett says she sees a lot of pet owners confuse head bunting with territory marking.
“That sounds so cold. Head bunting is typically an affectionate behavior. People think in black-and-white terms with their cat’s behavior. We show affection with a hug, a kiss, or by holding hands. Cats have so many ways of being physically close. They touch noses, which is like a handshake. Head bunting is the next step. It’s like a hug.”
Head Bumping and Head Pressing: There’s a Difference
Cats head press when they’re feeling severe discomfort in their head. This could be caused by hypertension, brain tumor, or other neurological problems.
“They may walk up to a corner and push on both sides of the wall. Their face is wincing. Their head is throbbing. It’s like us pushing into our temples when we have a headache. They may express excessive vocal irritability. They may howl like they’re disoriented,” Johnson said.
If your cat has suddenly started pressing his head against walls or furniture, or if you notice any of these strange vocal behaviors, it’s a medical emergency situation and you should take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.
Johnson-Bennett says the best way to differentiate between these behaviors is to know your cat and be aware of any change in its behavior.
“It’s those little things that pet owners discover about their cat’s behavior that can make a real difference in the relationship. If you misunderstand subtle signs it can have a huge impact on whether you have a close bond or not. We misinterpret cat communication all the time. We think we know what they’re saying or we think their behavior is like a dog’s behavior. Head bunting is another piece of the puzzle to have a better relationship with your cat. That’s what we all want. We don’t want a cat who hides under the bed and doesn’t want to be near you,” Johnson-Bennett said.