Why do cats put their butt in your face? Conventional versus unconventional answer.

Humans are squeamish about butts. Cats aren’t. We have created a narrative to explain animal behavior when they put their butt in human faces. I don’t believe there is a clean and clear answer to the question in the title. There is an overlap between my unconventional answer and the conventional one by amateur sleuths who have provided their online views. Please share your viewpoints too.

I have taken an unconventional and slightly complicated viewpoint in explaining why domestic cats apparently deliberately put their butt in your face. I don’t entirely agree with all the answers on the Internet; and there are a lot of them.

Cat butt in face

Cat butt in face. Photo: The Dodo. Humans are inherently squeamish about butts, any butts, any behinds and any bottoms. Humans are also squeamish about poop and urine. Animal are not. So, we create an animal narrative.

Conventional viewpoint

All the Internet’s amateur experts explain this cat behaviour as follows. They say that as cats communicate with scent, when a cat presents their butt to you it is because they are being friendly towards you and allow you to smell them as a form of greeting. They say that it is a friendly behaviour and essentially a greeting behaviour. I disagree with that actually.

I agree that cats identify other cats through their scent. This is because cats rely heavily on their sense of smell. When they greet other cats in a friendly way they do so with their tail up and they sometimes touch noses. They then rub flanks to scent exchange. That’s what cats who are friends sometimes do. In all the books I have read on the subject I have not seen a reference to a cat turning their backside to their friends and asking them to sniff it.

I think people are getting mixed up with dog behaviour. Dogs almost invariably sniff the rear end of other dogs when they meet them. The smells they pick up are a form of identification of the other dog. It is said also that the sniffing dog can learn a lot about the other dog through that dog’s scent. Dogs are even more reliant than cats on their sense of smell and cats rely on it tremendously as well.

This conventional viewpoint comes about because domestic cats have anal sacs on either side of the anus which delivers a strong, pungent chemical into their urine when they spray to mark territory. These are chemical signals. The suggestion is that these chemicals remain on a cat’s bottom or the smell leaks out of the anal sacs even if a cat has not been marking territory by spraying. Also, this conventional viewpoint must be based on belief that cats smell the rear end of other cats because they smell poop which is leaking out of the anus.

I’m not sure that all this is entirely correct. And I don’t think you can answer the question with complete certainty and confidence because the real experts have not discussed this. The result is that amateur experts throw their hat into the ring and have a go at answering the question but it isn’t necessarily correct.

How cats like to position themselves most often

How cats like to position themselves most often but not all the time. Pic in the public domain.

Unconventional view – the true reason?

Most of us know that the domestic cat’s friendly greeting is the “tail-up greeting“. It is suggested that this greeting evolved during the domestication of the cat as the wildcat ancestor of the domestic cat does not do it. It appears to have evolved from kittens having their tails in the upright position perhaps as a precursor to their bottoms being licked, a learned process from the early days when they were newborns, which evolved into a friendly greeting between kitten and mother. Putting aside for a moment the evolution of the tail-up greeting, we know that it exists.

After friendly cats greet with their tail-up, they might touch noses as a further friendly greeting. They then might rub heads, flanks or tails or a combination of all of them before separating and walking on.

Cats greet us with their tail up as we are their best friends and they see us, sometimes, as a surrogate mother. However, I believe that cats don’t like to face us when close up to us as it can be intimidating. You notice this when you pick up a cat and they withdraw their head because it’s too close to your head.

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For example, if like me you are lying in bed and your cat joins you and walks onto your chest, they will probably (but not always) turn their back towards you and face away from you while resting on your chest. The ears will point back and their tail will possibly squish against you to ‘feel’ you. They prefer this position because it is more comfortable for them as it is less intimidating. This is not universally the case because sometimes my cat will face me close-up but he only does that in preparation for a flea combing session – a trained behavior.

If I am correct in saying that cats turn away when close up to us because it might feel intimidating, and if they are employing the friendly “tail-up” position as part of their greeting, you going to see their butt. You’re going to believe that they are presenting their butt to you deliberately. I don’t think it is deliberate. I think it is an incidental side effect of other behaviours as explained. You don’t see cats presenting their butt to you when at a distance.

And because the human is very sensitive to the rear end of animals because we are squeamish about bums, poop and anuses et cetera, we create this narrative about cats doing it deliberately because it is an animal-trait but not a human trait.

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To recap, domestic cats don’t deliberately put their butt into your face as a greeting. Rather it is an incidental aspect of a friendly tail-up greeting and a desire to face away from their owner when they close-up position.

Please comment and tell me what you think.

Cat bum Photo by Auntie P on Flickr

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Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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