Do you think cats would hug or shake hands if they had arms and hands? They have four legs and paws and zero arms and hands, so we'll never know. Cats do touch noses, though. Sniffer-to-sniffer greetings show trust and keep both cats apprised of each other's olfactory adventures.
How Do You Do?
With the exception of lions—and, despite what you're about to say, your zany feline friend is no lion—cats are solitary beasts. Feral cats sometimes band together in colonies, but retain a high degree of autonomy. Same goes for domestic cats under the same roof. Cats share scents from far-flung adventures as a form of social currency in the absence of pack hierarchy. This exchange starts the moment they say hello to each other. Whether cats are meeting for the first time or longtime housemates are catching up after three-hour catnaps, they usually greet each other by touching and sniffing each others' noses. The nose touch is an even social exchange that puts both cats in an equally vulnerable position.
Cats learn nose touching as itty-bitty, teeny-weeny kittens. Although they're blind at birth, newborn cats have fully developed touch receptors in their noses. Nose touching is the first way they instigate contact with their mother. Nose touching remains cats' go-to friendly greeting for other cats throughout their adult life. Scientists think their adult kneading is a throwback to another kittenhood behavior—stimulating milk flow from Mom.
Here's the Rub
Cats have a great sense of smell, but they use it far less for hunting than many other predators. It's social contexts like nose-touch greetings that bring it to bear. A nose touch tells a cat where the other cat has been. It also tells him whether or not she's in his "in group." When a cat smells another cat who doesn't have his scent on her, he marks her by rubbing his face and head on her. It's partially friendly—a show of social acceptance—but it's also territory marking. Mutual grooming may follow. A stressed cat often uses the scent glands on his rear end to make extra sure his smell sticks to another cat. This isn't so much a way to say hello or a form of acceptance as it's a way of calling dibs and asserting dominance.
Your cat may instigate a nose-touch greeting with you. There's nothing wrong with letting your cat do this. Go ahead and say hello back the same way, if that's your thing, or get him to use your finger, instead. The nose touch is certainly friendly, but it's not a sign of affection per se. Another habit your cat picked up as a kitten is a surer sign of that: the head-butt. As a nascent kitty, your cat rubbed the front part of his head around his mom until he found a spot to nurse. This head-bonking is called bunting. A nose touch is just a friendly hello; a headbutt means your cat really loves you.
- Catster: Cat-Speak Dictionary—Rubbing, Nose-Taps and Kneading
- Reader's Digest: 13 Things You Didn't Know about Cats
- GeoChemBio.com: Felis Catus, Cat Behavior
- CatsPlay.com: Fantastic Feline Facts
- Linda P. Case; Canine and Feline Behavior and Training: A Complete Guide to Understanding Our Two Best Friends
- Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images