My understanding of these two feline terms, ‘butting’ and ‘bunting’ is that the former is a sign of friendship (but does not deposit scent) while the latter is about depositing scent, for scent marking, from scent glands in the cat’s head but this too is a sign of friendship when the scent is deposited on their human companion. I have used the phrase ‘feline allorubbing’ for the same behavior in the picture below.
The origins of the word ‘bunting’ in respect of cat scent marking is unknown. There appears to be some confusion over the interchangeability of two similar phrases: ‘head butting’ and ‘head bunting’. Do they mean the same thing? They don’t apparently.
The petmd.com website claims that they have different meanings:
“Head bunting, which most of us have been mistakenly referring to as head butting, is a way for cats to exchange scents…”
Bunting refers to scent marking objects (and humans are in that category) by rubbing the object with parts of the cat’s head and face. The cat has numerous scent glands on their heads and face such as (1) around the mouth and (2) under the chin and (3) one at each corner of the mouth and (4) one beneath the areas of sparse fur between the eye and ear. The ear flaps also produce a ‘characteristic odour’1.
When cats rub these parts of their heads onto objects they are said to be ‘bunting’.
Head butting by contrast describes the well-known feline behaviour of bumping the top of their heads into our hands or other accessible parts of our body (e.g our face if it is close enough) as a sign of friendship.
The cat behaviourist, Ingrid Johnson says that head bunting is a form of scent exchange: depositing the cat’s scent on us so our body odours merge. This is comforting for cats and is a sign a affection.
But it also refers to scent marking objects in the same way that spraying urine scent marks objects too. This establishes the cat’s presence in the area where the scent marking took place. You’ll see some great pictures of snow leopards rubbing their cheeks and the sides of their mouths onto rocks in the lower reaches of the Himalayas. It is the same behaviour and is bunting.
1. Cat Sense by Dr Bradshaw.