Receiving a ‘boop’ on your nose by a friendly kitty is a christening of sorts, an invitation into Fluffy’s inner circle, and a clear affectionate message (‘I love you!’). But when your cat crosses paths with a fellow kitty in the yard, she greets her the very same way — a gentle nose-to-nose nudge. However adorable the scene, the confusion settles in: Why do cats touch noses?
Cats touch noses because it’s the de facto feline handshake (a polite greeting) or a way to see where an explorative cat has been by sniffing their nose. The nearby scent glands also allow dominant cats to deposit their scents on a more submissive cat. With humans, bunting often follows these boops.
When a cat rubs her cold, slimy snout on yours, it warms your heart and reminds you why your best buddy has four legs. But did you know that, sometimes, these nose touches between cats aren’t so innocent? To learn about why cats touch noses, read on!
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Why Cats Touch Noses With One Another
When a strange cat prances into your yard and comes face-to-face with your fluff ball, it can be quite nerve-wracking. There’s no way to decipher whether this cat is feisty or planning a brawl until the first hiss, swat, or bite makes contact.
If the nose-to-nose gesture lasts several seconds without escalating, it might be:
A Feline Handshake
Cats learn this nose-touching behavior from the moment they enter the world. When a mother cat returns to the nest after a successful hunt or exploring her acre-wide territory, she’ll sniff each kitten one-by-one — a learned friendly greeting or ‘hello.’
Deaf and blind newborn kittens also rely on their robust sense of smell (some 14 times better than humans) to locate their mother when they’re ready to nurse or craving warmth. Cats continue these nose-led habits well into adulthood and rely on these nose-to-nose touches as the unofficial feline ‘handshake.’
During those few tense and curious seconds, a cat’s olfactory sense accelerates into overdrive. A cat will slightly gape her mouth open as she inhales the scent lingering on the other cat’s nose. This bizarre sniffing position allows the unknown cat’s pheromones (a 40-chemical concoction unique to each cat) to seep into Jacobson’s organ between the nasal cavity and mouth roof.
With that, Fluffy can decipher who this cat is, where her travels led her, and whether she’s friendly. On top of roughly translating to, ‘Nice to meet you’ or ‘Welcome back,’ cats will touch noses when a fellow colony cat returns from a voyage or a littermate comes in from another room.
A More Affectionate Message
Cats may be solitary beasts by nature, but that doesn’t mean they don’t build lifelong bonds with their fellow housemates, colony members, or neighborhood pals. These gentle nose touches allow both cats’ pheromones to mix and create a more blended communal scent. This ‘kiss’ also doubles as anxiety relief for cats wary of turf wars and invading tomcats looking to cause trouble.
Simply carrying this mixed scent around helps cats to feel at home and comfortable. That’s especially true as these new friends rub the shared pheromones on door frames, coffee tables, and shed siding (creating mock territorial boundaries where everyone inside feels safe).
A Scent Marking Ploy
Often dubbed ‘nose-sniffing,’ these cat-to-cat nose bumps can be more like a quick investigation into a fellow feline. Cats instinctively ‘greet’ wandering kitties with the classic nose-to-nose gesture to gauge who this cat is and why it’s here. If it’s a four-legged pal that comes and goes (or returns home before dinner), these nose boops alone are merely friendly greetings.
But in many scenarios, the nose touching follows other feline instincts: The urge for dominance. Cats may ‘escalate’ this introductory gesture by rubbing their cheeks or foreheads along the other cat’s face. Because both of these facial areas hold pheromone-releasing scent glands, this bunting is a cat’s way of overpowering the other kitty’s scent and claiming dominance.
While this can be a scent marking ploy and a subtle social hierarchy suggestion, alpha cats don’t take kindly to being on the receiving end. Two naturally dominant cats may face a power struggle that leads to:
- Aggressive ambush attacks that aren’t playful
- Blocking the other cats access to the food bowl, bed, litter box, or water bowl
- Urine marking
- Fighting for mates (particular in unneutered tomcats)
Intriguingly, this same dominant instinct takes an adorable — and less aggressive — twist with allogrooming. If your cats snuggle together with one licking the other’s neck and face clean, the groomer is your home’s alpha cat. Like bunting, the saliva transfer helps spread the dominant cat’s scent onto the timid or submissive kitty.
Other Ways Cats Spread Their Scent
Nose-touching aside, cats will deposit their scent throughout their self-proclaimed territory to build a haven free from predators and competing cats. Felines also spread their scent by:
- Urine marking (spraying on items or in locations)
- Rubbing the tail, forehead, chin, or lips on items
- Kneading before napping
- Pooping in their territory
These pheromone droppings only last so long before they begin fading and require re-application to remain powerful. Cats will sniff an item, person, or another animal intently to detect any lingering scents (whether the scent is theirs or another competing cat’s) before marking.
Humans notoriously misread feline communication, and scent marking is no different (‘Aw, that means she likes you!’). The video below explains why scent marking is more instinctual than cute.:
Cat & Human Nose Touches
Cats are skilled communicators within their own species and can easily detect whether a fellow cat is readying to attack (puffed-out tail and ears back) or generally friendly (bunting and purring).
If you share a deep bond with your beloved kitty, she’ll see you as a member of her pack — even though cats are notoriously solo hunters — and treat you as she would a fellow kitty friend. With self-protection in mind, cats reserve these face-to-face touches for the humans they trust the most. After all, coming this close to a raccoon or coyote in the wild can prove fatal.
When a cat touches or rubs her cold, wet nose against yours, it can mean:
- Welcome home!
- Where have you been lately?
- Have you been hanging around other cats?
- I missed you!
In other words, it’s a mix of all three possible messages: A friendly greeting (even if it doesn’t translate as directly), a scent marking ploy to cover up another cat’s scent, and an otherwise affectionate message.
Cat & Dog Nose Touches
In the rare moments that your cat and dog aren’t running tornadoes around the living room, you might witness a mildly affectionate encounter between them. Cats and dogs both use nose touches to sniff another animal’s travels and send out a friendly greeting. Properly socialized cats and dogs might use this same tactic to greet one another or admit they’re accepting the others’ existence.
It can be quite frustrating to find out that your cat’s nose-to-nose touches are deep-rooted in territorial instincts. If this hardwired trait teeters on aggression or destruction — like spraying or bullying a timid cat — here’s your next course of action:
- Give each cat an escape route and separate refuge.
- Buy plug-in pheromone diffusers to calm your cat naturally.
- Provide each cat daily play sessions to release pent-up energy.
- Clean urine puddles immediately to prevent re-marking.
- Start with a positive reward system (offer treats when Fluffy behaves).
Otherwise, take those slobbery nose boops in strides!
- International Cat Care: Cat Communication
- PetMD: How to Deal with Territorial Behavior in Cats
- PAWS Chicago: Cat Senses —How Felines Perceive the World
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.