Why does Scruffy stare and Garfield head bunt?
The Canine Stare
I would divide a dog staring at you into two different broad categories. The first category is pathology or disease. The second category is behavioral, psychological or emotional. Thankfully the most common reason that a dog will stare at you, I believe, is the latter; behavioral. Keep in mind this information is purely observational and no veterinary medical literature exists to explain this behavior! Let’s expand on these two categories now.
Pathology or Disease
Pathologic reasons that have been reported in dogs in medical literature and in my own experiences as a board certified veterinary surgeon as well as performing veterinary telehealth sessions as Chief Medical Officer of VetTriage. These include gastrointestinal diseases, neurologic disease and various metabolic or nutritional diseases. Out of these categories neurologic disease is, both in my opinion and in the medical literature, the most common medical issue as to why a dog would stare at you (or stare at one point in general). Gastrointestinal and metabolic/nutritional conditions appear to be rare.
The more common category, behavioral, can be divided further into three different behavioral reasons as to why a dog would stare at you. I would categorize the three reasons as dominance, confirmation/affirmation, and anticipation and engagement. Overall, we would refer to this type of behavior as the mutual gaze, which is defined as a dog being in direct eye communication or contact with another individual, usually another dog or a human being.
The dominance aspect of the discussion refers to a dog gazing at you with the primary goal of figuring out who is dominant. In that situation, a submissive individual would inherently look away, look to the floor or look to the sky/ceiling upon receiving this mutual gaze. Likewise the dominant individual in the mutual gaze would not look away. This sets up the hierarchy in “the pack”.
The anticipatory cause of the mutual gaze is to be thought to be as described; the dog is trying to anticipate your next move and, in this scenario, in a typical dog household, the next move may be going for a walk, going for a car ride, receiving a treat and so forth.
Finally, the last behavioral reason why dogs stare in this mutual gaze is the engaging aspect; meaning that the dog is acting, with their eyes, as they would when they bark or paw at you, or when they jumping you; to try and entice you to engage them. They want your attention.
Now out of these behavioral reasons as to why a dog would stare at you in a mutual gaze, I believe the latter two described of the behavioral reasons are most common, especially with a dog that is well socialized. They are letting you know that they care so deeply about you that the moment you engage them in return with a mutual gaze it either means they have your attention (engagement) or they are ready for the next adventure in life (anticipatory).
The Head Butting Cat
Feline behaviorists refer to head butting or head-bumping behavior as “bunting”. There are three reasons that we are aware of that may explain why cats exhibit this form of tactile and olfactory action to their human owners. The first reason relates to a physiologic function, and this also ties into the second reason; emotion exhibition. The third reason is dominance exertion. Finally, pathology can also be a reason for bunting. After these explanations, we will dive into why they would bunt inanimate objects.
This may be a form of marking their territory as cats contain specific dermal scent glands within the skin of their outer facial cheeks and around their mouths. These specialized glands secrete a hormone or pheromone that other animals may be able to detect. By marking their territory, unwanted visitors may be warned that this area (or this human) in fact already belongs to a specific cat. It also may be a way to attract a mate, but this purpose may be less likely as the majority of household cats are neutered.
This physiologic response ties into the emotional reason for these behaviors. Your feline companion is seeking your attention and attempting to show you (or other nonhuman housemates) affection, even to the point of claiming you for themselves while letting other nonhuman animals know where they stand in this hierarchy. The same goes towards bunting on furniture; they’re showing ownership or making their territory known to any other being that enter their realm.
This ties into the third reason; social dominance. When bunting occurs in cat (or species of another types) housemates, typically the dominant cat will use bunting as a method of showing social dominance over a subordinate cat.
The vast majority of bunting behavior is considered not only normal, but desirable. Deciphering feline emotions and thoughts based on the actions they display and the sounds they make proves challenging to interpret for human owners. Bunting is one of many signs that are largely unambiguous in what they mean.
Having said that, there may be uncommon to rare situations where bunting could be considered abnormal or even pathologic. The best example of this is neurologic disease, which can occur with some frequency in any aged cat and especially middle-aged to older cats. More specifically, brain tumors are known to change a cat’s behavior. If it is known that a particular cat is typically unaffectionate and then over time, he or she become increasingly more affectionate, gradually, as they age, this may be a sign of something underlying causing this change.
That being said, cats, just like humans, are ever-evolving in their ways! We all know there is a difference in personality between a kitten and a geriatric feline. Over time, behaviors and personality can change as a natural progression in life. As such, be sure to consult with a veterinarian if you are concerned in a sudden or gradual change in your cat’s demeanor.
Bunting inanimate objects
Cats will exhibit bunting to walls, furniture, and any housemates. By contacting their outer cheeks and the regions around their mouth to animate and inanimate objects, scent glands secrete a chemical indicating to other beings that this territory has been marked. Although unclear as to the reason for this, most believe it is mainly to display ownership. However it also may be a means to ward off invaders or even attract a mate. Considering most owned cats are domesticated, household cats who are also neutered, the primary reason for bunting walls and furniture may be for displays of attention, affection, and admiration as they typically will combine such behavior with other signs of contentless (purring, arching of the back, flicking the tip of the tail, and closing their eyes).
Despite the popular belief that cats are mostly antisocial or uncaring creatures that are either unable or unwilling to exhibit signs of admiration to their humans, studies have shown that cats due in fact exhibit many different signs of affection. Bunting is one method amongst many by which they exhibit attention-seeking, affection, and admiration to us human owners!
BONUS MATERIAL – Interpreting more feline behavior
If you own a cat who does not exhibit bunting, do not worry! There are a number of other feline behaviors that are mostly associated with affection and admiration that your particular cat may be showing to you. Here are some examples of such behavior.
The same way some dogs will stare at their owner with, what we personify to be, admiration, curiosity and awe, some cats will do the same. In fact, it may be true that a cat who stares at you while also blinking slowly, indicates a feline that is so content and protected from danger while in your presence. The lack of being constantly wide-eyed means that the need to constantly be hyperaware of their surroundings is unnecessary when they are around you. We, as humans, may interpret this behavior as trust.
A cat who chases their pet owner can also be seen as a positive behavioral trait. Chasing may be analogous to when dogs follow their owner. They want your attention and want to be around you more if they are chasing you.
Other body language signs of affection and even ownership include purring, pressing their entire body upon you, curling the end of their tail, kneading or treading, nibbling or grooming on your fingers or hair, laying on their back and exposing their vulnerable belly, and last, but not least, presenting the wonderful gift of a dead rodent or bird.
Pam Johnson-Bennett (2012-05-03). "Bunting Behavior". Retrieved 30 March 2015.
Mary White. "Cat Behavior Tips". LifeTips. LifeTips. Retrieved 28 May 2012.
Miller, P. (2000). "Whisker whispers". Association of Animal Behavior Professionals. Archived from the original on November 5, 2013. Retrieved November 5, 2013.