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Cat nuzzling is a common yet sometimes misunderstood form of cat communication. Often, your cat will nuzzle against your face or neck, maybe while you're snuggling or when you're trying to get some work done. But, why do cats nuzzle? Is it a diversion technique, or is your cat communicating something more?
How and Why Do Cats Nuzzle?
Rub. Nudge. Prod. Cat nuzzling goes by many names, but it refers to the act of rubbing their head against your chin, cheek or neck. You may even be the recipient of a headbutt, known as "bunting," which is quite literally when your cat knocks their forehead against yours. Think of it as the equivalent of a cat fist-bump!
Like other strange cat behaviors that may puzzle pet parents, rubbing their head against you has a purpose. Cats nuzzle to show affection and to mark territory, behaviors that share the common goal of leaving their scent behind.
Cats have many scent glands on their head, especially in the nose, mouth and chin area; with each rub against you, these glands leave behind a "mark." Rubbing their head all over you is their way of saying, "I love you." In exchange for nuzzling, your cat probably gets a lot of cuddles from you, which is a strong motivator for repeat behavior.
Nuzzling also is how they learn more about you. As Tufts' Animal Behavior Clinic veterinary behaviorist Stephanie Borns-Weil tells the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, your cat may rub on you to show affection, but they also want to "gather information about you." Cats have a very strong sense of smell — much better than their humans' sense — and they use scent as one of their main ways of collecting data about their environment. During nuzzling, your scent transfers to your cat and helps them recognize you, especially when you're first getting to know each other.
In addition to expressing affection, your cat nuzzles you to mark their territory. This is similar to how a cat may spray to claim ownership of specific areas or objects in your home — but with much less smell and damage.
Identifying you as an important and comforting part of their environment makes sense when you look at where else cats leave their scent. Cat rubbing and bunting "seems to occur especially in the 'core' area of their territory," says International Cat Care, "and appears to be associated with comfort, reassurance and friendly social interactions." This is why your cat rubs against not only you and other animals, but also furniture, walls and favorite toys. It's your cat's world; they just let you live in it.
Why Doesn't My Cat Nuzzle Me?
It's not uncommon for a cat not to nuzzle their human; some cats are just not into obvious demonstrations of affection. It does not mean your cat hates or dislikes you.
Breed factors into your cat's nuzzling behavior. Certain affectionate cat breeds, such as Ragdolls and Maine coons, are known to get up in their human parents' faces frequently. Age can also affect your cat's behavior. For example, kittens tend to be more playful than more senior cats. As they grow older, however, cats generally seek and need more attention, says the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, with many senior cats turning into snuggle-bugs.
Whether you're on the receiving end of a gentle rub or firm headbutt, consider yourself lucky: You are your feline friend's preferred person!
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is an award-winning writer, long-time pet mom, and a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA). Find and follow Christine on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.