Why Do Cats Head-Butt?

Boy and cat
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Head-butting, also known as bunting or facial marking, is a common practice among both wild and domesticated cats. Cats have glands at various locations around their body, including on their cheeks, lips, nose, forehead, and ears, and they rub these glands on people, other animals, and objects to leave their pheromones behind. Shared scent is an important component within groups of cats in the wild, so one reason cats head-butt is to create a safe space with a familiar smell.

A cat's pheromones left behind after bunting also allow it to return to hunting spots and retrace routes using scent. Cats also head-butt to greet and show affection, a process that goes back to interactions between mother cats and kittens.

While head-butting is a safe and healthy behavior for cats, it's important to distinguish it from head pressing, when an animal compulsively pushes its head against a wall or other hard object, which could be a sign of a serious medical condition.

Marking Territory

Cats use head-butting to mark objects, other cats, and humans with a familiar scent, most frequently rubbing with their chin, forehead, and cheeks. In cat colonies, bunting is not driven by dominance. All cats in a group exhibit this behavior and cats without the same scent may be driven from the group, meaning that group scent is important in the cat's identity formation, and allows cats to be certain that another cat they encounter is allowed to be within a certain geographic territory.

Domestic cats will typically head-butt many objects in the home, with bunting being on the harmless end of a continuum of behaviors that can escalate into scratching and urine marking in some cats with behavioral issues. In one study on feline marking behaviors, researchers sprayed Feliway, a cat pheromone product, onto areas where cats had been urine spraying to mark their territory and found that in 80-90% of cases cats began facial marking the area instead.

In addition to marking familiar territory, head-butting allows cats on the move to retrace their steps using scent. This is important for wild cats seeking prey, and they also use facial marking to note productive hunting areas to which they can later return. After displays of aggression or an altercation with another cat, cats will often facially mark areas nearby as a sign to unfamiliar cats that they are in the wrong territory.

Greeting ritual
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Greeting Other Cats (And People)

Head-butting between cats is an affiliative behavior, meaning that it reinforces social bonds and is mutually beneficial to both animals. In this context, head-butting is also known as allorubbing, a general term for two animals of the same species rubbing against one another. When cats see a familiar cat or person approaching, they may give a greeting meow or trill and often raise their tail vertically, head-butting once in close proximity. This behavior can be traced back to interactions between kittens and mothers.

When two cats from a socially compatible group are separated and then reunited, the cats exhibit behaviors including greeting vocalization, bunting, and allorubbing. Head-butting as a form of greeting also allows the cat to re-mark owners or other pets who have been outside with the familiar scent of home and safety upon their return. Many cat owners can recall a time when they interacted with other cats and dogs and came home to their cat smelling them intently and almost immediately head-butting the area they just smelled.

Research on domestic cat behavior has shown that genetically related cats are more likely to allorub, leading some vets to suggest that cats from the same family are less likely to have conflict in domestic settings.

Showing Affection

Free ranging domestic cats have a matriarchal social structure, with lineages of related females and their offspring. Within these groups, affectionate interactions are common, in contrast to the often hostile exchanges that may arise following encounters with group outsiders. Head-butting is typical among group members, and extensive allorubbing is often seen between two genetically related cats. One study on cat behavior found that when two members of the same colony approached one another with both of their tails raised, mutual and simultaneous head-rubbing occurred.

Two cats
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Showing affection with head-butting starts when cats are very young and interact with their mothers. Kittens who have been handled by humans during this period of development, between 2-7 weeks, typically display the same affiliative behaviors, including bunting, towards humans as they would show to other in-group cats. That means that when the cat is head-butting, rubbing, or attempting to groom humans, it considers them a bonded part of the group.

Humans can often use to their advantage the importance that scent has to cats. If there is conflict in the home after introducing a new pet, a method called toweling can be used, in which one towel is used to rub all of the cats in one setting and create a uniform scent, potentially minimizing disruption. Cat owners should also encourage their cat's head-butting and recognize it as an important part of a cat's communication system.

Head-Butting vs. Head Pressing

While head-butting is an adorable sign that a cat is healthy, head pressing typically indicates a dangerous medical condition requiring immediate attention.

Head pressing occurs when an animal continuously and insistently presses its head against a hard object, typically a wall or corner, without any apparent reason.

Warning

Any significant change in your cat's behavior, including head pressing, means you should take it to see a veterinarian as soon as possible.

There could be several different causes, and most commonly it's a neurological problem or a sign of toxicity, but head pressing could also be a result of a metabolic disorder, tumor, or infectious disease such as rabies.

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