Why Lions Nuzzle

It's not affection per se, but more a matter of survival

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Tier Und Naturfotografie J & C Sohns / Getty Images

Anyone who has ever spent time with a cat will know that, aside from the occasional pile of vomit on a chair or carpet, much of the feline-human relationship comes down to having one’s hands nuzzled by a small animal.

A study published in PLOS One may shed some light on this uncannily friendly behavior. The study, conducted by a team of researchers in Japan in Tonky Zoological Park, examined the nuzzling and licking habits of African lions in captivity. Their results were strange, but not surprising. The paper hypothesized that lions could very well use nuzzling and licking as a form of tension reduction, and in order express a social rank of some sort. Both these theories were not supported by their finding, but instead, the only supported hypothesis was that lions use what seem to be signs of affection in order to maintain or establish social bonds. Female lions lick female lions, females rub their heads against males, and males rub their heads against other males. Nuzzles or licks are reciprocated, except in the case of male-to-male head rubbing, which is understandable because it’s probably hard to coerce affection from a male lion.

Lions use licking and nuzzling as a way to strengthen social bonds, which is to say, male lions will nuzzle other male lions in order to make sure that when another coalition of lions comes along, the social bond is intact enough for all lions to hold their ranks instead of scurrying off and letting the rest of the group get killed.

Female-to-male nuzzling may be a way of strengthening relationships; lions don’t have the luxury of cooking dinner for a stressed-out spouse, or giving them a massage and putting the kids to bed so the other can relax. Nuzzling, as a result, may not be a direct sign of affection, though our anthropomorphizing tendencies may long for this to be the case (because how cute would it be if lions, deep down, really were just like people?). But rather, the nuzzling may be a biological reflex used to establish an order of attachment that people cannot understand without using the word affection itself, and therefore perhaps confusing a matter of survival with a movement of the heart. If lions can rouse troops to fight enemies, maintain relationships, and cement their entire society through a series of nuzzles and licks, then it may be fair to say people are biologically impaired, and that the lions have found a far simpler solution to order.

If only congressmen were willing to nuzzle across the aisle—how much progress we could make!

But let’s talk about cats for a minute. If we look at this trend, and we extrapolate just the smallest amount of data, we begin to understand the truth behind the nuzzle. Are pets simply trying to maintain a social bond, so that we continue to feed them, and so that when the arbitrary and unnamed enemy that has been carved into a cat’s instincts finally comes to attack, we will stand by and protect them?

(MORE: The ‘Lion’ That’s Really a Dog)