Cats have dozens of absolutely adorable behaviors that they use to work their way into our hearts.
One of my favorites is the feline headbutt- especially when cats are really serious about their headbutts and put their whole body into it.
But why do cats headbutt?
Headbutting or bunting as it’s called in the behavior field is a way for cats to mark their scent on people, furniture, and just about anything else in their world. It’s part of a cat’s natural instinct to mark their territory but also a sign of trust, affection, and sometimes a request for attention.
While it might seem simple at first, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to the feline headbutt. We’ll be diving deep into everything you could possibly want to know about this adorable feline behavior but first, let’s clear up some terms.
Headbutting, Head Bumps, Bunting, and Allorubbing
If you weren’t a cat lover already, you might be confused when you hear the excitement in someone’s voice as they explain that their feline friend “lovingly” headbutt them.
I mean, if anyone else were to headbutt you it probably wouldn’t be good…and certainly not loving.
Still, your average cat lover will know exactly what you mean and most likely share the joy of headbutts and head bumps.
But when animal or feline behaviorists describe this behavior they’d use the word bunting or sometimes head bunting. That’s the scientific term to describe any behavior where an animal rubs their head on another as a means to mark their scent or communicate.
While it’s not just cats that bunt, I’m of the opinion that our feline friends have perfected the behavior. Interesting, head bunting isn’t a sign of trust and affection in other animals and bunting is even a sign of aggression in cattle.
So far, we have headbutting, head bumps, bunting, and head bunting which all mean the same thing but you may also hear people refer to allorubbing from time to time. Allorubbing describes a cat rubbing themself on another feline in order to create a shared scent.
Bunting is a form of allorubbing but not all allorubbing is bunting so these terms can get a little confusing. Throughout the rest of the article, we’ll be using the words headbutting, bunting, and head bunting interchangeably.
5 Reasons Why Cats Headbutt
Now that we have our definitions out of the way, let’s get into the reasons our cats headbutt starting with the most common and most likely explanation.
Reason 1: Scent Marking
Cats live in world of scent that’s pretty difficult for humans to really understand. With a sense of smell that’s 14 times stronger than our own, it’s no surprise we don’t appreciate smells the way our cats do.
This powerful sense of smell is the driving force behind dozens of cat behaviors that often leave us humans confused and headbutting is no different.
But how exactly is headbutting related to scent?
Cats have pheromone-releasing scent glands on their heads, mouths, chins, sides of their face, neck, and ears. Headbutting allows cats to rub these scent glands all along their favorite human, the couch, or a feline friend.
That’s also why the headbutt is so much more than just a headbutt and cats typically rub their entire face on their headbutt target.
For a perfect example of this, just look at this handsome gray feline and how he leads with the head but makes sure all those other pheromone-rich scent glands around his face get involved too:
But why are cats insistent on rubbing their scent all over everyone…and everything?
It’s your cat’s natural territorial instincts that drive them to mark their turf, including you, with their headbutts and cheek rubbing. In the wild, cats would control large areas of land and mark their territory in a variety of ways including scratching, urine marking, head bunting, and even kneading.
In colonies, cats would headbutt each other in order to share scents and create a sort of colony scent that helps identify who’s part of the colony and who isn’t. Scent is such an important tool for recognizing cats that a major change in scent and a few years will prevent mother cats from recognizing their own kittens!
But all this scent marking doesn’t mean your cat thinks they own you and instead they’re just making sure you’re part of the group scent. As territory-focused and scent-driven creatures, cats prefer a world that smells like them and that includes you.
That explains not only why cats headbutt you but also furniture around the house and other important items.
Reason 2: Your Cat Want To Be Pet
Our cats have a wide range of tricks for getting us to do what they want. Sometimes it’s the simple technique of sitting not-so-patiently by the door until you open it or the not-so-subtle approach of headbutting you in the middle of the night to get you to pet them.
The message is pretty clear when cats directly headbutt your hand.
Sure, it helps spread their scent but it also leads to cats just about petting themselves. It’s like they’re just trying to borrow your hand to get what they need…even if you’re asleep.
So when trying to figure out the meaning behind your cat’s headbutts, pay close attention to where they’re headbutting you.
Reason 3: A Sign Of Affection and Trust
Closely bonded cats will use headbutts, grooming, and general rubbing as displays of affection towards each other. You can see this in action in this quick (but adorable) video clip:
When it comes to other cats, headbutting is a clear sign of affection and something that’s reserved for only their close friends and colony mates.
But what about when cats headbutt humans…can it mean the same thing?
Yes! For the most part, cats treat humans as if we were giant cats which means that interpreting the headbutt as a sign of affection is pretty reasonable.
Feline behaviorist John Bradshaw explains this a bit more eloquently when he says that “We’ve yet to discover anything about cat behavior that suggests they have a separate box they put us in when they’re socializing with us. They obviously know we’re bigger than them, but they don’t seem to have adapted their social behavior much. Putting their tails up in the air, rubbing around our legs, and sitting beside us and grooming us are exactly what cats do to each other.”
We covered this in detail when we considered whether or not our cats feel our love but it’s just as relevant here.
Even if we didn’t know that headbutting was a form of feline affection, just considering the position that cats put themselves in should be enough to strongly suggest that this behavior is a clear sign of trust.
Your cat is putting their face and eyes (one of their most vulnerable and important organs) right in your face. In the animal kingdom, faces are where teeth are and that’s a dangerous place to be.
Not only that, but because the headbutt extends into a rubbing motion it includes access to a cat’s neck- another extremely vulnerable spot. Similar to sleeping with their soft tummy exposed, the headbutt and cheek rubbing position put cats in a vulnerable spot that they wouldn’t take on with any creature that they didn’t already trust.
So you should feel honored when you get a feline headbutt right to the face, as strange as that sounds, since it means that your cat trusts you and you may even be your cat’s favorite human!
Reason 4: Your Cat Wants To Be Fed
We’ve already looked at the strategic head to hand headbutt technique that many cats use to get pets but it doesn’t end there.
Some cats will headbutt your legs the moment you get close to the food bowl or use their headbutts as a way to let you know that mealtime is late.
Then there are cats that just seem so excited about dinner that they can’t help but headbutt you in a mix of affection, anticipation, and maybe even some appreciation.
For an absolutely perfect example of this, check out Daisy the cat showering her caretaker with headbutts at mealtime:
Daisy is lucky enough to have free reign of the counter but even cats on the floor can get their message across with some well-placed headbutts to the legs.
To figure out if mealtime is motivating your cat’s headbutts, pay close attention to what your cat does after the headbutt. I know that my cat will use the headbutt to let me know it’s mealtime and as soon as I move she’ll run towards the direction of the food bowl in anticipation- even if it’s several rooms away.
If I don’t go in the “right” direction then she’ll come back with the headbutts.
Pretty impressive considering that dogs are supposed to get all the credit for herding! Cats seem to have already mastered herding their humans using their heads!
Reason 5: To Relax and Explore
We’ve established that headbutting is a sign of a strong human-feline bond and one of many ways that cats show their love.
So what does it mean when a complete stranger (at least to our cat) walks into our home and our feline friend starts rubbing and headbutting them. Have they already formed some kind of powerful bond?
While some cats will have a much lower threshold for who they headbutt, especially if it results in petting, others may actually be using the headbutt as a way to get closer to the person and familiarize themselves with whatever new scents they have. It’s also been suggested that bunting can be a sort of self-soothing technique for cats that allows them to stay calm and relaxed while they explore.
While this may not be the most common reason to explain the feline head bunting behavior, it does seem like a practical way to approach the situation. Headbutting allows cats to get very close to the new person or object all while spreading their scent.
So don’t be jealous if your cat starts headbutting a complete stranger with the same vigor that you get during mealtime. They may just be investigating this new person and their strange scent!
Feline Headbutting Is Not A Sign Of Dominance
If you’ve been digging deep on the subject of the feline headbutt you may have seen some people suggest that it’s about a cat’s dominance over you.
In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The idea of dominance is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the animal world- especially when it comes to cats. While cats can live in groups where they’ll have a hierarchical structure, there isn’t a constant struggle for dominance like you’ll see in social cats like lions.
Still, there are power dynamics at play and headbutting can help you figure out what they are.
Feline expert John Bradshaw explains to Scientific American that “By rubbing around our legs when they greet us, cats show that they regard us as friendly but at the same time slightly superior to them. When living in a family group, kittens rub on their mothers, females rub on males and smaller cats rub on bigger cats. The reverse rarely occurs—an indicator of the small imbalance of power in each of these relationships.”
If anything, Bradshaw is explaining that the headbutt and closely related cheek rubbing are a cat’s way of showing deference to you and not a power play or attempt to dominate.
So be kind to your feline and don’t be offended by the headbutt. Instead, take it for the sign of love and closeness that it is.
Should I Headbutt My Cat Back?
If your cat is already putting their head close to yours when they headbutt then giving them a little nudge back can be a great way to show affection. Just remember how much bigger you are and make sure to start slow and gentle- it won’t take much for your cat to get the idea.
This is also one of those situations where the use of the more appropriate and scientific term head bunting is probably a good choice.
Otherwise, you could certainly cause some confusion when suggesting that headbutting your cat is a great way to show your love!
Still, head bunting your cat back isn’t without risk and I strongly suggest that you turn your head down if you do this. So instead of using your cheeks and head to bunt like a cat, you would use the top of your head. Trust me, your cat will still understand your sign of love and you can ensure that a stray paw that doesn’t land on your face.
This is especially important the first few times you go in for a headbutt since some cats get so excited with the whole headbutting process that they can’t help but deliver a little love bite right after.
Overall, headbutting can be a fun feline activity but only if your cat seems to enjoy it and initiates it. You also don’t want to start headbutting strange cats and make sure you reserve this technique for cats you already know well.
Why Do Cats Headbutt Furniture, Walls, and Other Items?
While cats may headbutt humans and other felines as a sign of affection, cats headbutt furniture and other items in order to place their scent on them. With scent receptors all along their face and head, headbutting is a great way to mark their territory and spread their scent around your home!
If you pay close attention to your cat you’ll probably notice that most headbutting occurs on socially significant items like couches or corners in high traffic areas. These are spots where people or other pets spend a lot of time and ideal areas for cats to claim or at least make their scent known.
What If My Cat Doesn’t Headbutt?
We’ve talked extensively about how headbutting is a great sign of feline love and affection so many cat parents will be worried if their cat doesn’t headbutt.
But just because your cat doesn’t headbutt you or anyone else doesn’t mean they don’t love you! Instead, they just prefer other ways of showing affection and marking their scent. Cats don’t need to make it complicated and other behaviors like simply laying in your lap can help create a shared scent.
Every cat has their preference, style, and history with their human that can all impact how frequently they decide to headbutt.
Does My Cat Not Know How To Headbutt?
Still, some cat owners may be worried that their cat doesn’t know how to headbutt- is it possible for a cat to not know how to headbutt?
Headbutting or head bunting is a hard-wired instinct in cats and felines will do this behavior even without seeing it performed by other cats. All cats will have the instinct to use their cheeks to spread their scent but some may not use their entire head as vigorously as other cats do.
If your cat isn’t headbutting, there’s nothing to worry about it and you don’t need to try teaching them! Your cat’s instincts will drive them to spread their scent in some way but it just may not be headbutting…and that’s okay!
Headbutting vs Head Pressing
There’s one very important distinction to make when it comes to the world of headbutting and that’s the difference between the headbutt and head pressing.
As we’ve already discussed, headbutting occurs for a variety of reasons but is characterized by movement. In other words, headbutting isn’t just a cat bumping heads and it’s typically followed by cheek marking in order to really pass the scent.
Head pressing, on the other hand, occurs when cats press and hold their head against a wall or other object. There’s no additional movement and no effort to really mark their scent. Head pressing is usually the sign of a damaged nervous system and an indication that your cat needs to see the veterinarian as soon as possible.
You can see exactly what head pressing looks like in this video and it’s worth a quick 10-second view to make sure you know what to look out for. Once you’re familiar with the two behaviors it’s easy to spot the difference and it could help save your cat’s life.
I love when cats headbutt and while some felines like to play it cool my favorites are the cats that really put their entire body into the movement.
They seem to take headbutting or head bunting much more seriously than other cats and I love it!
As with many other cat behaviors, headbutting is really multi-purpose. Not only is it a great way for cats to show their love to humans or other felines but it also helps spread their scent. In the world of cats, scent is absolutely critical.
But just as cats have learned to meow from across the house to get what they want, our cats have also learned to use the headbutt as a way to communicate with us. A well-placed headbutt to the hand lets you know that it’s time for petting and some cats will use headbutts to herd their humans towards the food bowl.
So what may have started as a means to mark their turf has been adapted to do a lot more!
In most cats, there probably isn’t just one meaning behind the headbutt and instead this behavior serves several roles all at once!
What do you think? What’s your cat’s primary reason for headbutting?