Cat Bunting Behavior: Deciphering Feline Body Language

Understanding Cat Head Rubbing Behavior

Tabby cat and great dane
Getty Images/Betty Schlueter

Cats' unique behavior includes bunting -- that odd way your cat head-butts you. The technical term is bunting and refers to the way a cat presses and rubs her head against objects. Another technical term, allorubbing, refers to the way cats rub their bodies against another cat, a human, or even a trusted family dog.

Understanding Cat Rubbing Behavior

Why does kitty do this? Cats rub their heads against prominent objects to leave scent markings as a part of scent communication.

Depending on the object of the cat's communication, he may be claiming ownership or indicating pleasure.

Cats' Scent Glands

Cats have several different scent glands all over the body. They are located between the toes so the scent is deposited with cat scratches. But they also are located beneath the chin, the corners of the mouth, the temples, the base and along the length of the tail, and the ears as well. We don't know if each gland has a different scent or not, but cats tend to use the entire head in sometimes luxurious rubbing displays.

Which part of the head is used depends on the height of the target object. The forehead and ears usually are rubbed on the highest objects while head-height objects are marked with a swipe from the corner of the mouth to the ear. Lower objects get rubbed with the chin and throat.

Although rubbing between cats seems to take place most often between cats of different sizes.

Experts aren't clear on the specific understanding of this interaction. It's speculated that bunting, when directed at another cat, serves to redirect or avert aggression, perhaps the cat equivalent to showing the "peace" sign.

Head Rubbing on Owners

So what does it mean when your cat body-rubs or head-butts you?

Some cats become very pushy, and turn the behavior into a head-cracking contest (ouch!), while others slowly rub their body and tail around and around human ankles.

What does your cat do with you? He may forehead-bump (oh-so-gently!) your face, over and over again. With most objects, she may start with the corner of her mouth, and rubs the side of her head against it. And with other people, she may prefer the full-body rub around their ankles.

We can't know for sure, but cats tend to scent-mark objects that are most important to them. They use allorubbing with friendly cats, not with strangers. A cat who head-rubs your face with wide open eyes close to your face pays you a huge compliment in terms of trust by placing herself in a vulnerable position.

Maybe your cat is saying "peace out." Or maybe she's simply wearing her kitty heart on a furry sleeve. We like to think allorubbing (or head-butting if you prefer) expresses affection that says, "You are so important to me!"