Cat’s have a lot of ways to communicate. As well as the obvious ‘meow’ and purring, cats can communicate extensively non-audibly. You may have noticed your cat doing just this if they headbutt you! Why are they doing this? What does it mean? Could it be a problem?
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As well as audible and physical communications, cats communicate via pheromones. Pheromones are chemicals produced by an animal that send a certain ‘message’ when smelled. For example, they may say ‘I am here’, or ‘I am fertile’ or ‘my territory’.
Cats have glands that produce pheromones – their faces, particularly their foreheads, produce lots of pheromones. So when a cat headbutts, or bunts, you, they are transferring their scent to you. This may mean that you are part of their territory to ward off other cats that come near you, but more than likely your cat is just expressing that you are theirs. Marking to warn other cats tends to be in the form of urine or faeces, so we think that headbutting is more to create a safe-space for the cat themselves.
In the wild, particularly in wild cat colonies, cats communicate with each other by headbutting – sharing pheromones is a form of bonding and acceptance. If you are lucky enough for your cat to headbutt you, they may be telling you that you are a close member of their ‘colony’. You are their friend!
Pheromones aren’t just for other cats – cats like their own scent too. It soothes them in a similar way to purring. By rubbing against you, they are creating pheromones they can smell to create joy. If your cat headbutts and is purring, they must be doubly content. Think of it like recognising the familiar scent of home or a certain place that brings you joy.
What if my Cat Doesn’t Headbutt?
Not all cats will headbutt, and there are various reasons why.
Cats tend to headbutt when they are content and familiar with an environment. So new or stressed cats may not feel confident enough to headbutt. They may even be more likely to spray urine to scent mark instead. With these cats, creating a safe, calm environment and lots of patience is the best way to get your cat used to your home and start friendly headbutts.
Some cats just won’t headbutt! Not all behaviours are performed by every cat, and your cat may choose to spread pheromones another way. More aloof cats may not feel particular affection for their owner and might not want to headbutt you, or very shy cats might not be confident enough to approach you. If they are otherwise happy and content, they just might not be big into headbutting!
If your cat has stopped headbutting, consider if they are no longer comfy in their environment and are stressed. This may be due to a new pet or person, building work, recent stresses, diseases, pain, fear or other factors. It might be worth speaking to your vet if this occurs, to try and get them headbutting again.
Could it be Something Else?
Headbutting shouldn’t be confused for head-pressing, a sign of serious neurological issues. Head-pressing looks more like your cat pressing or leaning with their forehead, rather than rubbing. It can be seen against walls and especially in corners. There are often other signs, such as circling in a room, restlessness, wobbliness when walking, vision changes, vocalisation or even more serious problems like seizuring.
Head-pressing is a serious warning sign, and you should take your cat to the vet immediately if you see it. Head-pressing can be caused by brain trauma, toxicities, infections in the nervous system, high blood pressure, high eye pressure, diabetes and other serious diseases.