If you’re a cat parent, you’ll likely be familiar with the head bunt (or, as we often refer to it, headbutting). Most of us find these gentle butts endearing, and some studies suggest that headbutting could increase a feline’s chances of being adopted.
But what does this behavior really mean, and is it as affectionate as we think? The good news is that gentle butts signify contentment in your kitty. However, there are some instances where you’ll need to be a little more mindful, as we explain below.
Why Do Cats Headbutt You?
Cat’s heads are covered by pheromones produced by glands on the forehead, cheeks, and chin. These pheromones are used as a way for animals to communicate and mark their territory. When a cat headbutts you, they deposit pheromones from the gland in front of its ears. Here are some of the most common reasons for headbutting behavior.
Creating a Familiar Environment
Cats love to mark their territory with scent. When putting together a home, we fill it with things that comfort us, such as family photos and treasured possessions. It’s much the same for your cat; as animals who experience much of the world through smell, a familiar scent in their home can help them to feel comfortable and relaxed.
While urine marking can be used as a warning or challenge to other cats, there is nothing aggressive associated with scent marking. Instead, these are soothing behaviors designed to make them feel more at home. If you see your cat butting or rubbing its head against items in your home, imagine yourself pulling on the duvet after a long and exhausting day. The sense of comfort you feel in that moment is similar to what your cat experiences from the sense of familiar smells.
Marking or Bonding with You
It’s not just their environment that cats like to mark, but people too. And the meaning here is two-fold. On the one hand, it’s comforting for your cat to be around people who smell like them, but on the other, they will only share this scent once they feel they can trust you.
When a cat rubs their head around you and gives you a gentle butt, it’s a good signal that you have gained their trust and they want you to be a part of their inner circle.
If a new or unfamiliar cat approaches you and gives you a gentle butt, it’s their way of greeting you and trying to learn more about you. In these circumstances, the feline will probably be unsure and cautious around you. Try offering your hand for them to sniff, and make slow, subtle movements. Only fuss them if they seem comfortable in your presence.
They Want Attention
Cats don’t just headbutt you to mark you with pheromones; they also do it to get your attention. Most cats enjoy a good scratch on the head or under the chin and may headbutt you to initiate this interaction. If you reward them with the desired outcome, they will continue to engage in this behavior to get attention.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with that, and the headbutt and bonding cycle can be an excellent way to build a trusting relationship with your cat.
When cats butt their head against other people or things, it’s not always the external object that’s significant; sometimes, your cat enjoys the action itself. When cats rub their head against something, they’ll often accompany the behavior with gentle purrs or mews, which is a way for them to self-soothe and feel at peace.
Other behaviors cats use for self-soothing include “kneading,” where they paw at an item to regulate their emotions. Both are normal, healthy cat behaviors and should not be a cause for concern unless they become excessive or obsessive.
Cats are often considered solitary animals, but that’s not strictly the case; some can form strong social bonds with other felines. If we’re part of a group, we might have a uniform, badge, or another visual reference to our bond - cats use scent in much the same way. If they form social bonds with another cat(s), they may headbutt and rub heads with one another to combine their scents and create a kind of group smell known as a colony scent.
Differences Between a Headbutt and a Head Press
While headbutting is often a signal of contentment, you must understand the difference between a similar behavior referred to as head pressing. In the latter, a feline presses its head into walls or corners in an unrelaxed manner. And this type of behavior could indicate a neurological condition.
Suppose the headbutts from your cat evolve into a less gentle and more compulsive head press. In that case, it may be time to book an appointment with your vet, particularly if it is accompanied by behaviors such as pacing or self-injury.
Should You Headbutt Your Cat?
Your cat understands that the two of you don’t speak the same language but learning how to use body language to communicate with them is an excellent way to nurture your relationship. We’re not suggesting you whack your head against your kitty, but if they enjoy having their head close to yours, try gently rubbing your head against them to see how they react.
If they seem to enjoy it, you can try giving them a gentle “butt” to express your affection for them from time to time.