If you are a cat parent, you’re probably familiar with the cat headbutt, or as it’s more properly called, a head bunt. Many people consider a headbutt endearing, and in fact, a study showed that shelter cats that headbutted potential adopters were more likely to be adopted.
So what does it mean when cats headbutt you? Is it really a sign of affection or something else?
What Are Cat Headbutts?
Cats have glands on their cheeks, forehead, and chin that contain pheromones. A pheromone is a substance produced by animals as a type of scent communication. When a cat headbutts you, they are rubbing pheromones on you. The pheromone deposited during headbutting comes from glands located just in front of a cat’s ears.
Humans can’t detect these pheromones, but to a cat, you can consider yourself marked. These pheromones signal to other cats that a cat has been there.
The type of headbutt varies from cat to cat. Sometimes a cat will clunk you skull to skull, which can be a jarring experience. In other cats, the headbutt is a much lighter encounter. However, either method will leave you marked with their facial pheromone.
Cat Headbutting vs. Head Pressing
It’s important to note that headbutting in cats is not the same as a similar behavior called head pressing. With head pressing, a cat will compulsively push their head into the wall or corner and will typically not appear relaxed.
Head pressing can also be accompanied by other symptoms such as pacing, vision changes, or self-injury caused by excessively pressing the head. If your cat is head pressing or shows any other signs, it could be an indication of a serious neurologic condition. In this case, your cat should be immediately examined by a veterinarian.
Why Do Cats Headbutt?
Cat facial pheromones have a calming and reassuring effect, so headbutting is a sign your cat is very content. Both before and during headbutting, a cat may flop over playfully, purr, have partially closed eyes, or exhibit other relaxed behaviors.
Alternatively, a cat you don’t know well or at all may headbutt to sniff you or just feel you out.
Here are some of the more common reasons a cat will headbutt you.
Marking Familiar Surroundings
Cats may headbutt and rub their face on familiar objects like your furniture or their cat tree. When cats do this, they are marking the objects using the glands in their cheek.
This type of marking behavior claims a territory as familiar and in a positive way. Think of it as your cat personalizing their surroundings and creating a safe space, as opposed to making a territorial challenge to other cats like they would by urine marking or spraying.
Creating a Colony Scent
Although cats have been traditionally thought of as solitary creatures, they can actually be quite social.
Headbutting is a way for cats to communicate their connection with each other and establish social bonds. When cats within a colony headbutt each other, they are mixing their scents to create a single scent. This unique scent is then distributed to all of the cats in the colony as the colony scent.
Marking Their People or Bonding
Cats mark familiar people just like they mark things around the house. When a cat headbutts and marks you, it means you’ve been accepted into a very special club: a cat’s inner circle.
By marking you, a cat is connecting to you through scent and bonding with you. Thanks to their very keen sense of smell, much of cats’ communication is through scents in their environment. And though you cannot detect it, the fact that you smell like your cat is very reassuring to them.
When cats rub their face on something, they are usually purring, happy, and relaxed, without anyone else having to be involved. They seem to enjoy headbutting and rubbing their face on things and the scent of their pheromones immensely.
So when cats engage in solitary face rubbing, they may be self-soothing or regulating their own emotional state. Cats do this in other ways as well, like kneading with their paws, otherwise known as “making biscuits.”
Headbutting is a way for cats to mark you with pheromones and bond with you. However, sometimes headbutting can be a way for cats to seek attention. As a general rule, cats like to be scratched under the chin and on the head, so a cat may just be presenting their head to you for some attention and good scratches.
If a cat is consistently rewarded with attention after headbutting, then this may encourage more headbutting. In addition, the more you bond to your cat through headbutting, the more headbutting your cat will do for attention and bonding, in a sort of a feel-good cycle.
Checking Out a New Person
If an unfamiliar or newly adopted cat is headbutting you, they may just be checking you out. Move slowly and feel the cat out before reacting. You could offer the cat your head for a sniff and watch for the cat’s reaction. If they show interest in another headbutt, you could try a light one back. If the cat isn’t on board, they may prefer some head scratches instead, after an initial hand sniff, of course.
Are Cat Headbutts a Sign of Affection?
Cats headbutt to connect to familiar people, making headbutting a cat’s way of choosing you. So, to a cat, headbutting makes you special. Therefore, if a cat decides you are worthy of headbutting, consider it the highest of compliments and absolutely a sign of affection.
Returning your cat’s headbutt is great, if that’s what your cat likes. If you know they really like a good headbutt or chin scratch, then go for it.
Cats also will headbutt other pets in the household as a token of affection. Other cats will understand the message of goodwill, though they may not necessarily appreciate it, while a dog or rabbit might be a little confused.
Do All Cats Headbutt?
There is great variation among individual cats. Confident cats tend to headbutt more frequently and with more force than shy cats. Not only is the most self-assured cat more likely to headbutt, but they are also likely to be the dominant cat in a multiple-cat household. It’s the dominant cat’s role to deliver the colony scent to every cat in the colony.
Therefore, if your cat does not headbutt, there’s no need to be alarmed. Headbutting is only one way that cats show affection. Cats can also purr, flop, knead, slow-blink, or sleep next to you.
If your cat used to be into headbutting but doesn’t seem to be anymore, this change in behavior could mean that your cat isn’t feeling well, especially if you see other symptoms like lethargy or grumpiness. If this happens, consult with your veterinarian to see what might be going on.
- Caeiro CC, Burrows AM, Waller BM. Development and application of CatFACS: Are human cat adopters influenced by cat facial expressions? Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2017;189:66-78.
- T M, N K, T H. Head Rubbing and Licking Reinforce Social Bonds in a Group of Captive African Lions, Panthera Leo. PloS one. September 2013.
Featured image: iStock.com/Drazen_
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