Stealing Kitty Kisses. How Cats Really Feel About Unexpected Head Smooches

Cats Have Complex Emotions

Cats experience a range of emotions just like humans do. Research shows that cats feel complex emotions including love, fear, stress, anxiety, and contentment [1]. While cats may express their feelings differently than humans, they have distinct personalities and can form strong bonds with their owners.

A 2020 study analyzed cats’ facial expressions and vocalizations to demonstrate that cats integrate visual and auditory signals to recognize human and feline emotions. The researchers concluded cats appear to modulate their purring to communicate different emotional states [2].

Experts believe cats feel primary emotions like sadness, joy, anxiety, fear, surprise, disgust, anger, excitement and contentment. However, they likely do not experience more complex secondary emotions like guilt, pride, shame or contempt [1].

While cats may not feel the full range of human emotions, they have a deep capacity for emotion. Paying attention to your cat’s body language and vocalizations can help you better understand their emotional state.

Signs a Cat Likes Affection

Cats show affection in many different ways. Some of the most common signs that a cat likes affection include purring, kneading, and head-bunting.

Purring is one of the clearest ways cats communicate happiness and affection. According to PetMD, cats often purr when being petted or sitting on their owner’s lap. The vibration and sound of purring indicates the cat is content. Kittens even purr when nursing to indicate to their mother they are happy.

Kneading is another sign of feline affection. Also known as “making biscuits,” kneading is when a cat pushes in and out with their front paws, usually on a soft surface. According to Rawz Natural Pet Food, this motion mimics how kittens would nurse on their mother. So cats continue this motion when feeling happy and safe with their owners.

Head-bunting refers to when a cat gently bumps your head or face with their own. This helps transfer the cat’s scent and mixes it with yours, marking you as “theirs.” According to Dutch, bunting is a social bonding behavior and a request for attention. So it’s a sign your cat feels affection for you.

Cats’ Sensitivity to Touch

Cats have ultra-sensitive whiskers that help them detect and measure openings, objects, and air currents in their environment. The whiskers, also known as vibrissae, are connected to nerves that send tactile information to the brain. Even the slightest brush against a whisker can trigger a reaction in cats. This is why cats with whisker fatigue may avoid narrow food bowls and spaces, as repeated friction against their whiskers is uncomfortable.

In addition to their whiskers, cats have a highly developed sense of smell thanks to the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of their mouth. This organ contains sensory receptor cells that detect pheromones and other scents. When a cat rubs against objects or people, it is collecting scents and information about its environment. A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times stronger than a human’s.

With such sensitive whiskers and smell receptors, cats can become overwhelmed by too much petting, handling, or new environments. Light touches like kisses on the head must be given judiciously, while respecting the cat’s comfort level.

Head Kisses Can Be Comforting

Head kisses can actually cause the release of oxytocin in cats, which is the hormone linked to bonding, trust, and affection. When a cat receives a head kiss from their human companion, it mimics the licking behavior that mother cats do to their kittens. This can signify to the cat that their human cares for them and sees them in a nurturing way. One study found that when women interacted with their pet cats through stroking, petting, kissing, and holding, their oxytocin levels increased significantly [1]. The oxytocin release suggests that head kisses can help strengthen the bond between cats and their owners.

Cats also seem to show preferences for certain types of human interaction over others. Research has found that compared to petting or holding, cuddling and kissing a cat led to higher oxytocin levels in women. This indicates that more intimate, affectionate contact like head kisses are perceived as comforting bonding behaviors by cats.

So while not all cats may enjoy kisses on the head, for those that do, it’s likely a reassuring gesture that brings them closer to their human companion.

Or a Sign of Dominance

When cats groom each other, it can be a sign of affection. However, it is also how they establish ranking and dominance within their social group.[1] Grooming between two cats of different ranking reinforces the dominant cat’s status. So when you kiss your cat on the head, they may interpret it as you asserting your higher status.

Cats have scent glands on their head, so when you kiss that area, you are also spreading your scent there. Your cat may find this calming if they accept you as the dominant member of the household. But if your relationship with your cat is less settled, a head kiss could be seen as an unwelcome power play.

Much depends on your individual cat’s personality and your existing bond. If they disliked a head kiss, signs could include moving away, shaking their head, licking the area afterwards, or even attacking with teeth or claws if they’re very offended. So pay close attention to how your cat reacts when you kiss their head.


Individual Personality Differences

Cats have unique personalities and preferences, so not all cats will react the same way to kisses on the head. Some cats really enjoy human affection and being kissed, while others may become irritated or overstimulated. According to Vet Vista, male cats tend to be more social, playful, and affectionate than females. However, the cat’s environment and experiences also shape their personality. An aloof female cat may warm up to affection over time. Feliway notes certain breeds like Abyssinians and Bengals crave interaction, while Siamese cats can be more independent.

The best way to tell if your cat likes kisses is to observe their body language. Does the cat push against your hand, purr, or rub their head where you kiss them? These are signs they enjoy the attention. But if the cat’s ears go back, they swish their tail, or they try to pull away, kisses probably overstimulate or annoy them. Get to know your individual cat’s unique personality quirks and preferences.

Kittens Learn from Mother

A mother cat plays an important role in teaching her kittens proper behavior and skills from an early age. Her early training shapes their preferences and personality traits they’ll carry into adulthood.

Mother cats teach essential life skills like hunting, grooming, using the litter box, and interacting appropriately with humans and other animals. Kittens learn a great deal through observation and mimicry of their mother’s actions. For example, kittens may watch attentively as their mother demonstrates how to bury waste in the litter box, then copy her motions.

Mother cats also provide discipline when kittens misbehave, which helps curb unwanted habits. A stern meow or gentle swat on the head signals to a kitten when they’ve crossed a line in play. According to veterinarians, this type of discipline from mom is essential for kittens to develop proper social skills and boundaries.

A mother cat’s care in the first weeks profoundly influences her kittens’ preferences and personality quirks later in life. Her teaching helps prepare them for integration into human homes. Kittens that receive affection and nurturing from mom often grow into affectionate, confident cats.[1]

Read Your Cat’s Body Language

A cat’s body language can tell you a lot about how they are feeling when you kiss their head. Pay attention to their eyes, ears, and tail to interpret their reaction.

Squinting eyes or slowly blinking shows contentment and affection. However, wide open eyes or dilated pupils may signal fear or overstimulation. Ears that are relaxed or forward-facing generally mean a cat is comfortable with a head kiss. Ears flattened back against the head suggest annoyance or anger. A tail swishing gently side to side indicates positive interest and excitement. But a tail puffed up or thrashing back and forth is a warning sign to stop.

According to The Definitive Guide to Cat Behavior and Body Language, “A cat’s posture, tail, and ears will probably tell you what you need to know, but if you’re still unsure, take a look at their eyes.” Reading your cat’s full body language, not just their reaction to a head kiss, will help you understand their feelings.

Give Your Cat Some Control

Cats are independent creatures who value their autonomy. Forcing affection on a cat can cause them to feel stressed and anxious. Instead, allow your cat to initiate contact on their own terms. Wait for them to rub against you or hop into your lap rather than grabbing at them. Letting your cat choose when they want attention shows them you respect their boundaries.

It’s also important not to restrain or hold a cat against their will, even if you have good intentions. Cats dislike feeling trapped and will struggle to break free. If your cat tries to wiggle away or acts distressed, let them go immediately. Forcing a cat to remain still can damage trust and cause them to associate you with feelings of helplessness. Allow them the freedom to walk away if they desire.

Giving your cat some control allows them to feel safe and comfortable. Pay attention to their body language, and let them guide interactions. With patience and respect for their autonomy, you can build a stronger bond of affection and trust.

Respect Your Cat’s Boundaries

Cats have sensitive personal boundaries and dislike having those boundaries crossed. It’s important to respect when a cat wants space or doesn’t want to be touched. Forcing affection on cats when they don’t want it can make them feel anxious, stressed, or agitated.

Pay attention to your cat’s body language and signs of discomfort. If they start fidgeting, acting agitated, pulling away, or lightly biting, respect their signals to stop touching them. Allow them the space they desire. Pushing cats beyond their boundaries too often can damage the human-cat bond and their trust in you.

Every cat has unique preferences for what kind of handling and affection they enjoy. Get to know your individual cat’s personality quirks. With time, you’ll learn when your cat most welcomes touch and affection. Until then, let your cat take the lead and control the interaction.

Giving cats more autonomy reduces stress and helps them feel secure. If you need to pick up or move your cat, do so gently and put them down as soon as possible. Try luring them first with treats instead of forcing them.

By tuning into your cat’s body language and respecting when enough is enough, you can build a bond of trust. Your cat will feel more comfortable coming to you for affection when you respect their boundaries.

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