Why Do Cats Headbutt?

I love it when my tabby Murphy sidles up to me and then rams my shin with the top of his noggin. He'll usually repeat this action once or twice until he knows he has my full attention. Because of past experience, I'm pretty sure that this is his way of asking for something - whether food, affection, or a prompt cleaning out of his litter box. It's, quite literally, a very pushy gesture, but I find it endearing and I'm left impressed by his communication skills! Murphy's little brother Riley, however, only headbutts when I'm giving him physical affection (or if he wants it), and vocalizes all other requests. Curious to know what the experts have to say about the matter, I did a bit of research - and here's what I found:

The Head Marks the Spot
Cats scent-mark areas with their own unique pheromones that are secreted by glands located on their lips, front paws, behinds, flanks, and, yes, their foreheads. For this reason, it's commonly believed that when a cat butts or rubs you with their forehead and lips, it means that he is "marking" you as belonging to his inner circle of trustworthy peeps.

The Nose Knows
The technical term for cat headbutting is "bunting," and when they're rubbing their pheromones on you or other cats with their lips, sides, or rear ends, this is known as "allorubbing." You've probably also noticed that cats who know each other rub noses as a way to greet (i.e., sniff) those whom they've marked in the past. Allorubbing and sniffing both reinforces and outwardly expresses their feelings of comfort and contentment with the objects and people in their environment.

“Butt” Is That All?
So we know that cats headbutt and rub to affectionately greet others as well as put their scent on familiar people, animals, and objects. However, many cat owners (including myself) believe that their kitties are headbutting them as a means of requesting things from them. If so, it's most likely a learned behavior. We all know that many animals can be trained through repetitive conditioning. So, if you've regularly responded to your cat's headbutting by feeding him, letting him out of the house, cleaning the litter, or whatever else, you could have created an association in his feline mind between headbutting and you completing a particular task for his benefit.

So how about your cat(s)? Any enthusiastic headbutters in your household? We'd love to know!

By Maya M.