If you have a cat, you know they do some pretty confusing things. One of those things is the classic cat headbutt. While headbutts are seen as aggressive in the human world, cats can seem so gentle and happy when they do it. So why do cats headbutt things? We asked vets and cat behavior experts — and they say there’s not just one answer. Keep scrolling to learn more and see some adorable videos of cats headbutting their owners.
Why do cats headbutt?
Cats can headbutt a variety of things — furniture, humans and even each other. They start by pressing their forehead against something, then often rub their face on the object. So why do they do it? Cat experts say there are a few top reasons:
1. Cats headbutt to mark their territory
“Cats have scent glands on their forehead, cheeks and chin that allow them to deposit their scent [pheromones, or species-specific chemicals] on objects,” says Dr. Mikel (Maria) Delgado, cat behavior expert with Rover. “Marking objects in this way sends the message, ‘I live here, and this is part of my territory.’” She notes that cats who live together and share the same “territory” will often rub on the same objects to create a singular group scent.
Have you been the recipient of a cat headbutt? It isn’t just furniture or toys (or cardboard boxes!) she may mark as her territory. If your cat has headbutted and rubbed her face on you, she may want to communicate to others that you are her human — nobody else’s. And here you were thinking you were the owner of your cat!
2. Cats headbutt to show affection
Our favorite reason your cat may headbutting you is that she loves you. “When your cat rubs its face against you, they’re not just marking territory but also expressing love and trust,” says Dr. Kong. “It’s their way of bonding with you and making you a part of their scent family.”
Those little cat headbutts are like hugs. “Headbutting is a positive sign that your cat considers you part of its family,” adds Dr. Caos. “If your cat actively seeks out physical contact with you, it’s a strong indication that they enjoy your company and feel loved.”
As if it couldn’t be any cuter — cats headbutt each other for the same reason. “Did you know that when cats rub their faces against each other, it’s called ‘allorubbing’?” says Dr. Sabrina Kong, DVM and veterinary contributor at We Love Doodles. “It’s a social behavior that strengthens the bond between cats in the same group.
3. Cats headbutt to feel secure
Cats have an incredibly strong sense of smell. Humans have about 5 million scent receptors — cats have up to 200 million. That means they’re not only better than us at picking up scents, they’re also better at distinguishing between them. Cats use this skill to detect potential intruders or danger. When they’re in an environment with a familiar, safe scent, they know they can relax. “Cats rub their face on things as a way for them to feel more secure in their environment,” says Dr. Kong. “It helps them surround themselves with familiar scents.”
4. Cats headbutt to get attention
Cats are smart: They know how to manipulate us into giving them what they want. It’s pretty hard to ignore an adorable kitty bumping her head up against you, and she knows it. When she’s headbutted you in the past, you’ve probably given her some attention in the form of pets, scratches or even baby talk. Your cat may be headbutting on you because she’s craving interaction.
Should you headbutt back?
If cats understand headbutts as a form of affection and trust, does that mean we should be returning the gesture? Do they understand it the same way when they’re on the receiving end? They very well might! Cats may see your headbutt as a show of love. Try offering your forehead to your cat and see how she responds. Don’t force it on her — let her headbutt you back only if she feels like it. And remember to be gentle! Kitty heads are so much smaller than ours.
When cat headbutts are a problem
It’s typically not a problem when cats headbutt objects, but you should always pay close attention to your cat’s body and behaviors. “If you notice any redness or itchy spots on your cat’s face, they may be rubbing due to discomfort or pain, not to mark their territory,” says Dr. Delgado. “If you notice any irritated areas on your cat’s face or body, you should call your veterinarian right away.”
Pay attention, too, to the frequency with which she headbutts things. If the behavior drastically increases, you may want to get your cat checked out. “Excessive rubbing can sometimes be a sign of underlying health issues, stress or anxiety,” says Dr. Caos. “If your cat’s behavior becomes obsessive, leads to hair loss or skin irritation or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, it’s recommended to consult with a veterinarian to rule out any potential medical causes.”
Cute videos of cat headbutts
Can’t get enough of cat headbutts? We can’t either. Check out the adorable videos below of kitties communication their love and affection.
1. A polite demand
This cat’s love language is pets, and she knows headbutts are a great form of communication.
2. Headbutt booth
This enterprising kitty knows what the people want.
3. Headbutt handshake
Cats are always giving us headbutts — it’s probably nice to get one in return!
4. Too much juice
Flynt the cat bonked his owner so hard, he scared himself. Like they say, love hurts sometimes.
5. A baby’s best friend
What’s cuter than a cat headbutting her owner to say ‘I love you’? A cat headbutting a baby!
6. Drive-by face rub
Nothing like a quick nuzzle from a furry friend to brighten your day.
7. Collaborative headbutt
Just by looking into this pudgy gray cat’s eyes, this owner knew it was time for a headbutt.
Click through to learn more about quirky cat behaviors: