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Why Do Cats Headbutt You? 3 Possible Reasons

Kathryn Copeland

By Kathryn Copeland

woman bonding with calico cat

Almost nothing is more endearing or adorable than when your cat gives you a headbutt. Of course, coming from almost anyone or anything else, it might be scary or painful, but a cat headbutt is gentle and sweet (most of the time!). But why exactly do our cats engage in this odd behavior?
A cat headbutt is actually called head bunting. Cats engage in this behavior as a sign of trust and as a way of marking something with their scent.
We have a deeper look into this behavior and why your cat will headbutt you, your dog, and even your furniture!

What Is Up With Head Bunting?

If you own a cat, odds are that you’ve been a recipient of head bunting. In fact, every member of your household, including other cats and dogs, your couch, and your dining room table, have probably all fallen victim to your cat’s bunting. There are three main reasons that cats love to bonk so many things with their heads.

European shorthair cat lying on the floor
Image Credit: Gundula Vogel, Shutterstock

The 3 Possible Reasons Your Cat Headbutts You

1. Scent Glands

Cats have several scent glands in different areas of their bodies. These scent glands are located in their paws and around their tails, and there’s a whole bunch in various locations on their faces: their chin, cheeks, forehead, the base of their ears, and lips.
When you notice your cat rubbing up against your leg or furniture, this is creating something called a colony scent. Cats have pheromones in their scent glands, which they leave on everything that you see them rub or bunt. We humans can’t smell their pheromones but cats can.
These pheromones send messages to other cats that you (and your furniture) are a part of your cat’s territory, and it makes the environment more familiar for your cat. When cats are surrounded by their own scent within their environment, it makes them feel more comfortable. It can also act as a way to self-soothe. Basically, cats are showing physical signs that you are accepted.

2. Trust

Cats also head bunt as a way of marking you with their scent, which is also placing you in their “safe zone.” Marking you as safe shows a measure of trust, and it can be construed as a loving and affectionate action.
Bunting with other cats is also a social and bonding experience, which only occurs with cats (or dogs, or people) that they are already familiar and comfortable with.

cat laying on owners lap
Image Credit: Impact Photography, Shutterstock

3. Seeking Attention

Sometimes, cats might just be looking for attention. If your cat bunts you and then seems to want something more, like head and chin scratches, then the message is clear.
If you tend to give your cat pets and attention after a head bunting session, then your cat knows that bonking you can lead to glorious neck scratches.
Head bunting could also be about looking for playtime or even dinner. It’s also entirely possible that your cat is just feeling quite happy and relaxed and is expressing contentment through affectionate head bunts.

Head Bunting Animals

Cats will head bunt any other pets in the household that they are friendly and familiar with. Trust is a large part of this behavior, so if you notice your cat head bunting your giant dog, this is a sure-fire sign that your cat trusts your pup.
You might notice other cats in the household all head bunting each other. They are creating a colony scent and engaging in social and bonding behavior.
In fact, watch any nature show about big cats that live in colonies (lions, for example), and you’ll notice plenty of head bunting and rubbing going on between the members of a pride. This ensures that they are all bonded and members of the same group. You can almost say that if your cat bunts you, you’re a member of your cat’s pride.
It’s typically the more dominant cat that initiates any head bunting, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that if your cat is bunting you regularly, they are in charge of the household.

dog and cat
Image Credit: vaclavzavada, Pixabay

Head Bunting Furniture

Cats are obviously not bonding with your furniture, but head bunting and rubbing behaviors commonly occur with the furniture, doors, and walls in your home. You might also notice that your cat will primarily use their lip scent gland while rubbing these items. The lip gland is typically used for marking objects.
Cats will feel much more relaxed and comfortable in a home when surrounded by their own scent, and it lets other cats know that everything in the house is a part of their territory.

Cats That Don’t Bunt

Every cat is a unique animal. Some cats love to sleep on your lap, and others avoid it like the plague. The same goes for head bunting. Some cats will bunt all the time, while others will rarely or perhaps never bunt. Most cats do bunt, but cats that have been newly adopted probably won’t because they need time to adjust to their new surroundings.
If head bunting just isn’t your cat’s thing, they might show their bond with you in different ways. If your cat routinely brings you gifts (toys, dead mice, insects, etc.) and greets you at the door when you come home, these are definite signs of love.
You can also look for slow blinking and grooming behavior — licking you and even love bites are all affectionate physical signs that you have a strong bond with your cat.

kitty sleeping on lap
Image Credit: canaros, Pixabay

What Is the Best Way to Respond to a Head Bunt?

One of the most important things that you can do is to just receive the head bunting. This way, you’re allowing your cat to express affection, and you can then give it right back by offering gentle head scratches.
However, always be aware of how cats react. If they aren’t in the mood for scratches at that moment, they will likely avoid your hand and walk away. Never force scratches or head bunts.
You can also head bunt your cat back — just make it slow and gentle.

When Should You Worry?

If you ever see a cat pressing their head against a wall, the floor, or any furniture, this is a serious warning sign that the cat might have a severe neurological disorder. Head pressing is a physical sign that a cat is experiencing extreme discomfort, and it could be from a head injury, hypertension, a neurological issue, or a tumor.
Other symptoms to look out for include:

  • Pressing of the head against a surface for long periods of time
  • Excessive vocalizing
  • Wincing in pain
  • Pacing and circling
  • Changes in behavior
  • Visual problems
  • Seizures
  • Disorientation
  • Wounds as a result of some of these behaviors

A vet visit is in order immediately if you suspect your cat of head pressing!

vet assessing birman cat
Image Credit: Stock Asso, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

Whether the head bunt is gentle or a bit of a hard whack on your skull, your cat is essentially accepting you as a part of the family (their pride). Cats are sensitive and social pets that communicate through scent and body language.
When your cat starts to engage you in head bunting time, see if you can figure out if your cat is sending you a message. Whether your cat is giving your legs or your head a hard bonk, the result is the same. Head bunting is less about cats being territorial and more about them giving you their version of a hug or kiss.
Above all else, you should feel honored that your cat has chosen you as someone they trust and love. You’ve clearly built up a mutual bond, so enjoy those headbutts, bonks, or bunts.

Featured Image Credit: Kristi Blokhin, Shutterstock

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