Cat Behavior

Why Do Cats Head Bump: Looking Deeper At This Unusual Feline Trait

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Cats may be one of the more enigmatic of all pet animals and owners spend a lot of time trying to figure out how their cat feels about them.

If you have ever watched your cat and wondered what is going on inside that adorable furry head, you are definitely not alone.

When your cat approaches you and seems to deliberately bump its head into you, this brings up even more questions. What is your cat trying to ask you, show you, or tell you?

This post will look deeply into cat head bump behaviors to answer this question.

Why Do Cats Head Bump

Cats head bump to communicate. Cats primarily communicate through scent. A head bump deposits a small amount of your cat’s scent pheromones on your skin. This lingering scent-marking identifies you as safe.

Many cat owners and feline veterinarians and behaviorists also believe cat head bumps are a sign of affection. But until we can speak “cat” (or they can speak “human”) we will never know for sure.

Listen to a Cat Owner Explain Head Bumps

In this short YouTube video, an experienced cat owner explains one common theory behind why cats head bump their owners.

While we may never know for certain why cats head bump people, we can learn a lot from observing our cat’s behavior before, during, and after a head bump.

What Is a Cat Head Bump

As Gillette Animal Medical Center explains, feline behaviorists have observed head bumping behavior in cat colonies.

Over time, observation has led to some very interesting theories!

Only the most confident cats will head bump other cats

If your cat is head bumping you (it doesn’t have to be on your head), researchers believe this indicates confidence.

In cat colonies, observers report that only the confident cats will head bump other cats. Confidence is important because of what we talked about here earlier – each head bump leaves a bit of that cat’s scent on the other cat….or on you.

A confident cat that head bumps you to leave a scent marker are both saying “you’re my kind of cat” and marking out their safe territory or zone.

In other words, any cat or human that smells like that cat will be recognized as safe and friendly in the future.

Head bumps are a bonding ritual among cats

The Rescue Vets highlight the importance of head bumps, which are sometimes also called head butts or bunting, as a bonding ritual between two cats.

Interestingly, even though the most confident cat will initial a head bump, in that head bump the two cats involved actually exchange scents.

The initiating cat will deposit their scent pheromones on the receiving cat. And the receiving cat also deposits some of its scent pheromones on the initiating cat.

Within a cat colony, head bumping is an important way to identify who is a part of the cat colony and who is an outsider.

Within your home, your pet cat may have a rather unusual assortment of colony members – you and your family – but the importance of head bumping to exchange scents still remains.

Head bumping is the cat equivalent of “I love you”

PetMD draws a parallel between cat head butts and human displays of affection.

It could be that the feline head bump is one way that cats express love and affection towards their owners.

We will talk about how to tell in the next section here.

Feline Body Language During Head Bumping Behavior Is Key

Many first-time cat owners initially have a hard time decoding cat body language.

But over time, you learn that round eyes, soft facial muscles, relaxed ears and whiskers, an erect tail, and soft purrs mean your cat is happy and at ease.

And as Cat Protection points out, you learn that upright or flattened ears, dilated pupils in the eyes, arched back or balled-up body, bared teeth, and hissing indicate fear, stress, or aggression.

So now is the time to put what you know to the test while observing your own cat during a head bump interaction.

What does your cat look like? How does your cat sound when vocalizing? What type of posture does your cat display? If your cat has a tail, what position is the tail in?

These cues will start to alert you to your cat’s mood during a head bump.

Researchers and experienced cat owners report that typically a cat that is head bumping is displaying a lot more relaxed body language and vocalization, but you can observe your own cat learn more.

What Does It Mean When Your Cat Head Bumps Furniture

It is all well and good to equate a cat head bump with love when it happens with you.

But what about when your cat head bumps furniture, a favorite cat toy, the family dog, or something else?

PetCareRX points out that the scent marking aspect may be the primary motivation for this type of head bumping behavior.

A cat that head bumps furniture, cat trees or toys, other animals or objects in the home or yard is marking these animals or items as safe.

Once marked, the cat can return to them again and again and be able to tell with one whiff whether that is part of their safe zone.

While this may not make a lot of sense for an indoor cat that lives its whole life inside your home, it is still vitally important for your cat as a way to feel settled and safe.

Here is where you can really see your domestic cat’s wildcat survival instincts are still alive and active. Your cat can’t just turn those off, nor would you want them to.

Head Bumping Is a Sensory Experience for Cats

Head bumping, head butting and bunting are all interchangeable terms for the same basic behavior. Allorubbing or head rubbing are also variations on the same theme.

But as Cat Behavior Associates points out, different cats may do this in slightly different ways.

And the same cat may gently head bump you one day and use their head as a battering ram into your forehead or thigh or arm the next day.

Why does this happen? Is your cat trying to tell you something?

The answer is “absolutely.” Head bumping is a full-on sensory experience for your cat and it is always a form of communication.

The communication may be accompanied by the types of body language we described here earlier. Your cat may vocalize, drool, blink its eyes or rub up against you.

The message could vary from a simple “I love you” to a request for pets, grooming, attention, playtime, or treats.

If you have ever responded to head bumps in the past with any of these offerings, you can be sure your cat remembers and is hoping you will do the same thing again.

This is also why it can be important not to consistently reward your cat for head bumps with treats or you may end up with a very fat feline!

Is There Something Wrong If Your Cat Doesn’t Head Bump

If your cat doesn’t head bump, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. As long as there are other signs of affection and bonding taking place, it may just mean your cat doesn’t need to head bump.

Why Do Cats Head Bump

As a pet writer and blogger, Shannon is passionate about crafting knowledge-based, science-supported articles that foster healthy bonds of love and respect between people and animals. But her first and very most important job is as a dog auntie and cockatiel, tortoise, and box turtle mama.

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