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The Cat Headbutt: what does it mean and why do cats do it?

I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite gestures in cats is the cat head poke. My own cat, Tara, keeps bumping my head when she’s on me, and half the time she knocks my glasses off my face when she does. I don’t mind the temporary inconvenience because I know what the cat head butt means.

Cats headbutt people, other cats, and even objects. Photography © Matteo Viviani | Thinkstock.

First, what does a cat’s head look like?

The cat head butt is not when cats stick their head in another cat’s bum, although that might be another amusing definition. When a cat hits the head, it will tap its head against you, rubbing its cheeks against any part of its body that it is near. Cats also bump into objects such as walls, chairs, and furniture.

What does cat head butt mean?

Cats have scent glands all over their bodies that they use to leave marks on objects, including you. According to cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, cat head beating is typically used for attachment and social purposes. “It is an act of trust for the cat to put its face so close to your face and to engage in this bonding behavior,” she says. Johnson-Bennett also explains that this behavior is better known as the cat flag.

People often mistakenly think that the cat head butt is just a means of marking territory, but it is much more than that. Scent communication is complex, and while cats use scent to mark their territory, the cat flag can also be used to create familiarity and show respect.

Johnson-Bennett also says cat head butting can attract attention, especially if your cat bangs its head against you and then pokes it down or turns it to the side.

Do cats beat other cats as well as humans?

Yes. In fact, you will often see cat lovers rubbing their heads at each other. It not only creates the “colony scent”, but also helps with binding. It is a measure of deep confidence for another cat to put its head this close to one of its feline companions. So if you see your cat bump into another cat, you know that it means they are friends.

Cat flags also appear in wild cats, which cats encountered naturally over millennia of evolution.

An orange cat bumps into its human.

A cat headbutt is just one of the many forms of cat love. Photography © Olezzo | Thinkstock.

Why do some cats headbutt and others not?

Every cat is different, so don’t worry if your cat doesn’t hit you or their fellow cats with the head. The frequency and intensity of the cat’s head bump varies greatly. And there are tons of other ways cats can show affection.

Don’t confuse head pushing with head butting

Head press is when a cat relentlessly presses its head against a wall or piece of furniture. Pressing the cat’s head is often a manifestation of a neurological disorder, often accompanied by abnormal vocalization or other strange behaviors such as circling and disorientation. “Head squeezing and associated symptoms, in particular, are usually caused by problems with the central nervous system,” writes Dr. Eric Barchas. “In other words, head press occurs when something goes wrong with the brain.”

Featured photo: ehaurylik | Thinkstock.

Continue reading: Why do cats lick you? 7 reasons

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