Butting heads with your cats

Oct 2, 2011 by Dr Steven Bailey    No Comments    Posted under: Tips & Advice

Just about every cat owner knows that the reputation cats have for being antisocial is unfairly earned. Cats have a significant number of social interactions: visual, verbal, tactile, and olfactory (scent). One of the most endearing social interactions between cats or between cats and humans is head-butting, also called “bunting” or “allorubbing”. Why do they do it? If cats don’t NEED our society, why would they seek us out and rub all over us?

Cats are very tactile animals – they appreciate many varieties of textures. Each cat has its own texture preferences, and they tend to enjoy the sense of touch. As kittens, they “knead” their mother to ask for milk, and the mother grooms them, so from a very early age, cats are taught that touch is a comforting behavior. Cats may brush lightly against a person or another cat, or they may push quite vigorously, depending on their personality. Cats will only head-butt cats that they have a social relationship with, and it is generally a positive and friendly interaction. Most cats also purr while head-butting and rubbing other cats or people. This allorubbing behavior can be considered to be the feline version of a hug or handshake. A quick nose-bump is a cat’s way of saying “Hi!”

Cats are also very sensitive to scents. Their sense of smell is about 200 times stronger than the human nose, and they also have the ability to sense pheromones with a small organ on the roof of their mouth. Cats also have scent glands all over their body, quite a few of them on the head: the forehead, cheeks, chin and lips. Other scent locations are at the base of the tail and along the length of the tail, on the feet and the flanks. When cats rub their scent glands on people, objects and other animals, they are transferring scent. Interestingly, some people have observed that cats seem more likely to mark people and other cats with the forehead and cheek scent glands and will mark objects with the scent glands on the lips and chin (called “chinning”).

Cats distribute their scent around their environment by rubbing or scratching on objects, or even spraying urine. Each cat has a unique smell, and their own scent mixed with the smells of the cats that they associate with makes them feel comfortable and safe in their own territory. When they rub against another cat in the colony, it is thought that they are replenishing the cat’s “group scent” after the other cat has been away. Many people notice that their cats will come running when they walk in the door and immediately start rubbing around their legs. This suggests that cats consider their owners to be part of their colony. Our response is generally to reach down and pet them, which reinforces this behavior.

Cats may also head-butt when seeking attention – sometimes a cat will head-butt another cat or person and then offer their neck sideways with their head tucked down. In this way, the cat is asking for grooming from the other cat, or scratches from a person, which simulates grooming behavior. Grooming is another touch-related bonding experience that makes cats feel good, comfortable and safe. So while your cat may not be saying “I love you!” in quite the same words we might use, she is saying “You’re mine, because you smell like me, and you make me feel safe and secure,” which, to a cat, is essentially the same thing.

Dr Steven Bailey

Dr. Steven J. Bailey founded Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital in 1992. He obtained his Bachelor of Science and Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from Michigan State University in June of 1986. After graduation, Dr. Bailey practiced emergency medicine for 8 years prior to establishing Exclusively Cats. Dr. Bailey is one of two veterinarians in the state of Michigan and the only veterinarian in Southeastern Michigan that has been board certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners as a Feline Specialist (ABVP). His special interests include complicated medical/surgical cases as well as critical care, advanced dentistry, and behavioral medicine. Dr. Bailey is an active member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), he is a current council member of the Southeastern Michigan Veterinary Medical Association (SEMVMA). He is also an Associate Editor of the Feline Internal Medicine Board on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), invited member of VMG #18 (The only feline exclusive Veterinary Management Group) and MOM’s group (Macomb/Oakland Management Group). In his free time, Dr. Bailey is an avid kayaker (some may even call him “obsessed”) and an instructor in both canoe and kayaking sports. He also enjoys running and spending time with his family. Dr. Bailey and his wife Liz have 2 adult children, Christopher and Kayla, 3 cats, Tic Tic, Sapphire and Lacey, and one dog, Charlotte.

Exclusively Cats Veterinary Hospital

6650 Highland Road

Waterford, MI 48327

Phone: 248-666-5287

Fax ‎206-333-1135

ecvh@exclusivelycats.com

Website: http://www.exclusivelycats.com

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