Why Do Cats Headbutt and Should You Headbutt Back?

Behavior August 30, 2021
cat headbutts a young woman

Why Do Cats Headbutt and Should You Headbutt Back?

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cat headbutts a young woman

If you’re the owner of a purr-fect, furry feline, you’ll probably know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a cat headbutt. Not the aggressive kind, of course, but a gentle nudge with their forehead. But why do cats headbutt? What does it mean? And should you headbutt back, or is that bad social etiquette in the feline world?

What is a cat headbutt?

Cat headbutting is a behavior known as bunting. It occurs when your cat approaches you with the top of their head, bumping you with their forehead, then rubbing their nose, ears, and the side of their face against you. Although it’s often a behavior cats perform on their owners, you might also see them do the same to other animals, as well as furniture and other objects. So, what does it mean when a cat headbutts?

Why do cats headbutt people?

Cat headbutting is widely recognized as a form of affection, so it’s your feline friend’s way of telling you they love you in many ways. However, there’s a lot more to it than that. Cats have scent glands dotted all around their bodies, but the highest numbers of scent glands are on their faces. When cats rub their face against you, they transfer their scent onto you. So, in some ways, cats headbutt as a way of marking territory, and it’s a huge compliment that they like you enough to mark you as ‘theirs’! However, scent-marking serves another purpose. By making you smell like them, they are reminded that you are safe and trusted each time they smell their scent on you.

Why do cats headbutt each other?

If you have more than one cat or other pets in your household, you might have noticed your cats headbutting or bunting their pet pals. If your cat headbutts another of your cats, it tends to mean that they like them and don’t feel threatened by them. What’s also interesting is that by rubbing against your other cat, both cat’s scents will be mixed together. This allows them to bond and helps them mark each other as safe, but it also represents their unity. Where cats share spaces, they will each scent mark safe spaces, leaving a combined colony scent that calms and reassures them.

If your cat bunts your dog or other pets, this tends to signify a good relationship. It also means that your cat feels safe, secure, and bonded to the other animal.

Why do cats headbutt furniture and other objects?

It’s common for cats to bunt against walls, furniture, and other objects too. Not only is this a method of marking their territory by transferring their scent to surrounding objects, but it also serves to reassure them. Just like many humans, cats like their home comforts! Our purry pals feel most calm and contented in their home environment because it is safe and familiar. By marking surfaces in their home environment with their scent, they are surrounded by their calming and familiar pheromones, which reduce anxiety and help them feel relaxed.

If your cat headbutts you, should you headbutt them back?

No one knows your cat and their body language like you do, even if you don’t realize it! If you think your cat is in a friendly, affectionate mood, you could try headbutting them. Remember, though; it’s nothing like the human term! It’s probably best to wait until they instigate the loving exchange so that you know they’re at their most content and relaxed. Use your forehead and approach them slowly, without any forceful or over-enthusiastic movements. Keep your eye on their body language and give them space if they seem wary or distressed. If you’re gentle and they’re in the right mood, you could share a tender moment. Who knows, they might even headbutt you back!

Frequently asked questions

What does it mean when a cat headbutts you?

Cat headbutting is also known as bunting. If your cat headbutts you, even though there are a few reasons for it, it’s always a compliment! Cats bunt to show affection and trust, so it can mean that you’re really special to them. They also do it to mark their territory and leave their scent on you, which reassures them that you are ‘safe.’

Why does my cat headbutt me then bite me?

Cat behavior can be complex and quite hard to understand because it’s very different from human behaviors! Whereas in humans, headbutting and biting are not good behaviors for making friends; these behaviors can be signs of affection in the cat world. 

Of course, cats also bite out of aggression, anger, fear, or pain, but a little nibble of their owner’s hand is often them being loving. It’s essential to notice your cat’s body language when handling or approaching them. If their ears are back and their pupils are dilated, and they’re backing away from you, these are signals that they are not happy and don’t want to be approached. However, if their ears are forward or upright and they are leaning their head towards you, these are positive signs that they want a fuss.

What does it mean when your cat bumps heads with you?

As well as scent marking, when your cat bumps heads with you, they are bonding with you and showing you affection. So, feel proud; you might just be their favorite human!

So, headbutting is a good thing?

If your cat bunts or headbutts you, it’s definitely a good thing. It’s a sign that your furry friend finds you more than tolerable! Headbutting is a cat’s way of showing affection and trust, but it also marks you with their scent, so they’ll want to come back for snuggles time and time again!

Dr Hannah Godfrey MRCVS graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 2011. Although she initially worked in mixed practice treating all species, she found a love for small animal work and has worked exclusively with dogs and cats since 2014. She lives in Wales with her partner, son, and two cats (named Poppy and Ashton Kutcher), and writes comedy fiction in her spare time.
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