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Ask the Doctor July 2018 Issue

Dear Doctor: What does bunting mean?

cat rub

krblokhin/Getty Images

When a cat rubs his head on a person or an object, he is leaving behind a scent mark to communicate his presence.

Q. My son recently adopted an adult cat from a shelter, and I notice that “Tigger” likes to rub his cheeks repeatedly on the legs of the furniture. In fact, he started to do the same thing to my face when I was petting him on the couch!

What exactly does this mean? Is it the start of his becoming possessive and maybe aggressive?

Lenore Alfonse

A. Dear Lenore: The behavior is called bunting. Cats have scent glands around their faces (chins, sides, ears and neck). Bunting leaves a scent mark. There are many possible reasons why bunting occurs. Cats bunt to communicate their presence to other cats. According to Dr. Wailani Sung, DACVB, other cats may be able to tell how old the scent mark is, which then gives information about how long ago the cat that did the marking was in the vicinity. Cats are very territorial animals so scent marking can leave a sign for other cats that the territory is occupied.

Cats also bunt when they are anxious. Depositing their scent makes unfamiliar surroundings familiar and thus safer feeling. This could certainly explain why Tigger is bunting in his new and unfamiliar home. Finally, bunting can be a sign of affection toward the owner. Cats in social groups may bunt each other to promote and support bonding. Bunting in and of itself is not a sign of possessiveness or impending aggression.

Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM

Clinical Instructor

Cummings School of Veterinary

Medicine at Tufts University

Comments (4)

My two cats head-bump me all the time. It is a sign of affection and I love it. It's a cat caress. In the middle of the night, my one cat will head bump my forehead to wake me up because he wants to be held and snuggle with me. Once under my arm, he's fast asleep. My other cat will visit me at the computer, head bump me, then go on her way. If I'm on the computer for a long time, she is back with many head bumps, then lays in my lap so she can be the main focus of my attention. I've never associated head bumps with any aggression. It's a sign of their affection.

Posted by: Penny's Mom | July 17, 2018 3:38 PM    Report this comment

I agree with you both. All of my cats have done this and none of them was aggressive at all. I find it odd someone would think this and not understand that their new kitty is both scent marking AND showing affection. It is clearly a way a new cat "marks" his new person. I take it as a compliment!

Posted by: missannienow | July 17, 2018 3:13 PM    Report this comment

I am always surprised when vets remark only on scent marking when explaining bunting. Cats have millions of nerve endings in the skin around their heads. Stroking their heads, cheeks, under their chins, and their faces is especially pleasurable to all cats. If they are not domesticated, they bunt other cats in their colony, their kittens, trees, and all kinds of objects in their territory. It's kind of like bears scratching their backs against trees. The cat feels pleasure and leaves its scent. If it didn't feel good, they wouldn't be so apt to do it. They also use it to express affection. It is never done in an act of aggression. Often bunting extends to the rest of the cat's body as well. I always say that cats love you with their whole body and I love when my cats rub themselves against me. Catmama

Posted by: Catmama | July 17, 2018 12:35 AM    Report this comment

Good heavens - are you kidding me? I call it "head butting" and my kitties use it as a sign of "I love you Mom!" consistently! In the early morning they'll head butt before changing their positions on the bed, when I sit down on a chair they'll come up and make biscuits on my chest and when I pet them and talk to them they'll head butt my breast or my armpit. I have always seen this as a "YO MAMA" sign...

Posted by: lakristina | July 17, 2018 12:06 AM    Report this comment

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