Why do cats bunt you?

An alternative and a further question on the same or similar topic might be, “Why do domestic cats head-butt each other?” I believe that if you can regard the scent (pheromones) of a domestic or wild cat as a representation of them in terms of their body odour i.e. their scent, it helps to understand bunting. In case you were unaware, bunting describes cats pushing their heads onto objects either inanimate or animate, i.e. another cat or their owner.

The video made by me shows Kathrin Stucki being head-butted by an F1 Savannah cat. This is bunting. The Savannah is a large and vigorous cat so the action is strong and overy pronounced.

Scent exchange

When cats bunt their owner they are depositing scent from the glands on their head and their ears onto their owner. This is not territorial marking. This is a desire to put some of their scent onto an animal that is their friend and companion, and indeed a provider, and that animal is their human caretaker. When they deposit the scent on their owner some of their owner’s scent is deposited on their head. This is called “scent exchange”. It is a merging of the two animals if you regard, as I said, the odour of each animal i.e. the human and the cat, as a representation of that animal. Remember that smells are very important to cats.

And when the scent merges to become one they become closer. It is a way of bonding cat to human and vice versa. It helps to cement the relationship. Bunting is also built into a greeting procedure because in greeting you cement relationships and humans do exactly this with other humans in the handshake (or they used to before coronavirus).

Domestic cats do the same thing with other cats as well. And there are other glands in their bodies as you can see from this diagram. This is why cats who are friends with each other rub against each other and sometimes intertwine their tails where there are more glands. The motivation is the same as in bunting.

Locations of domestic cat scent glands
Locations of domestic cat scent glands. Illustration: PoC.
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Territorial marking through scent

This is an associated topic which is why it is mentioned here. You will also see cats especially wild cats marking territory by rubbing and pushing their cheeks against rocks and trees. This is depositing scent from the cheek glands onto the rocks as a calling card to other wild cats to tell them that they were there at a certain time. As the scent of cats is more volatile than urine it constantly needs topping up because it’s smell fades. This is why cats patrol their territory along familiar tracks and constantly top up their scent marking. Some wild cats do this incessantly and numerous times over a period of a month. It may surprise people how often they do it. It is a never ending process.

Feline allorubbing
Feline allorubbing. Rubbing the cheek depositing a pheromone on his owner’s leg.

Domestic cats also deposit scent from the glands on their faces and on the sides of their bodies on items of furniture in the home. It’s a natural process and in this instance it is a form of territorial marking. For domestic cats confined to the homes their territories are relatively very small to what they would normally be used to if they had unrestricted access to the outside. If they were allowed outside they would rub their bodies and cheeks against vertical objects within their home range. And in my estimation the home range of a domestic cat is naturally up to about 5 acres although it could be much more depending upon the cat and the terrain. It also depends upon competitors in the area and what territory they have claimed.

You will also find within their territory invading cats scent mark on top of the resident cat’s scent to mask it. Then the resident cat has to go back and redo their scent marking.

In multi-cat households you may get scent marking of this nature taking place more often because of the competition for the limited amount of territory. And males mark territory more often than females normally. They may even resort to urine or feces marking by spraying in the home under certain conditions when they are stressed.

Conclusion

Just to go back to the beginning again to remind ourselves that cat bunting is a form of depositing scent from their glands onto the object they are pushing their heads into and in the case of cat-to-human interactions this is a friendly gesture designed to cement the relationship.

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