The Nose of Peace

My regular readers will know that I’m sometimes fascinated by the extent to which mammalian body language crosses species lines — and, indeed, is so well conserved that families as far apart as felids and primates can communicate in ways that are emotionally satisfying to both parties. We take this for granted, but it’s really quite remarkable when you think about it; there’s a repertoire of mammalian gestures that must have maintained consistent social meanings since the earliest mammals in the late Triassic, 200 million years ago, all the way through dizzying changes in size, encephalization and ecological niche.

My wife Cathy reminded me of another one today: the Nose of Peace. “I thought you’d enjoy this photo of a kitten and a young deer exchanging the Nose of Peace” she wrote; our label for it comes from my attempt to describe to a friend over the phone the behavior of two cats who, after quarrelling for days, decided to get along. My friend understood what was intended by “the Nose of Peace” immediately, and that term for it has since spread to several other mutual friends.

It made sense to my friend because cats often greet each other like this to signal non-hostility, and cats will sometimes greet favored humans the same way if humans make that possible. Back when we lived in a house with three stories, one of our cats would sometimes use the ground-floor stairway to position herself at head height for a human. We noticed this, but didn’t figure out why until one of us passed by close enough one day and she offered a gentle nose-touch. After that, we made a point of allowing this to happen when she assumed the position.

That photo of a cat and young deer touching noses shows that it’s not just humans consciously imitating feline body language who produce the gesture; the deer recognizes it, too. Dogs as well as cats use it. And of course the greeting is used human-to-human, most famously among Inuit. That’s four separate mammalian lines including Cervidae; the likelihood that this is a very, very old mammalian gesture seems correspondingly high.

As body language, it’s classic Lorenzian uncompleted aggression. Faces are vulnerable places on an animal, the eyes especially so. A nose touch says “I could bite you, but I don’t want to,” which is about as definite a way as a pre-linguistic animal has of signaling friendliness. Now look at the deer/cat picture again and go “Awwww!”. This response, too, is part of the picture; the gesture is also a signal to onlookers that the participants are happy, curious, and not disposed to fight.

Humans are prone to over-sentimentalize animals a lot, probably as a side effect of their nurturant instincts towards human young. But underlying that tendency is a hard and interesting fact; there is a mammalian community of empathy, even of sociability, that is tremendously wide and two hundred megayears deep. Our lives are richer for it.

Categorized as Science


  1. The first contact our Australian Shepherd and newly acquired Guinea Pig made was the nose of peace.

  2. I’m a cat guy, and I have long known this behavior and use it as way to ‘equalize’ the relationship between myself and a new, perhaps nervous, cat. It works wonders. I then use it on a continuing basis among my established cats to reinforce the friendly pack bond.

    Thanks for the great name – “The Nose of Peace” – it’s simply perfect :)

  3. Has there been any formal research done on this area of interspecies relations? Very fascinating stuff.

  4. When horses perform the nose-to-nose gesture, they blow into each others’ nostrils. I have heard this explained as a way for long-separated individuals to recognize each other. While they have great peripheral range visually, horses have very imprecise vision compared to primates. They do have an outstanding olfactory sense, so the recognition hypothesis is plausible.

    I have witnessed horses perform this maneuver and then proceed to fight. Presumably they recognized each other, and recalled their mutual antipathy. When the individuals hadn’t previously met, and therefore could not recognize each other, they often engage in a lengthy serial chasing ritual that culminates sometimes hours later in one horse recognizing the other’s dominance.

    Humans who try this will find all but the most ill-tempered horses respond well to a “kiss-and-blow” on the nose. I have also seen very young foals initiate the maneuver with dogs, which dogs responded in a suitable fashion. Horses seem much less interested in establishing inter-species dominance than dominance among themselves, so in this context the gesture is much more peaceful.

    This isn’t my favorite signifier of equine linguistic ethology, however. I really like the exaggerated jaw-clapping that younger/smaller horses do when they meet older/larger horses, when there is a pronounced size difference. I even have a favorite “etymology” for this behavior: it seems to me reminiscent of the nursing motion, and seems to say, “I’m just a little kid; won’t you be nice to me like my mommy?” I’ve seen the jaw-clapping in foals that had never been exposed to other juveniles, so it’s probably not a learned behavior. It also seems too complex to be as reflexive as ear-pinning, squealing, or even the NOP, so it’s something of a puzzle.

  5. Ashley the cat, one of my most trusted friends of any species, was always skittish around humans, not to mention bitey. She was never hesitant to use her ninja claws and razor fangs to ensure she wasn’t messed with. She wasn’t quite sure of us for a long time there. One day when I was a teenager, about a year after we got her, she just left. We only found her a week later when she literally came crawling back, half-starved and humbled but thankfully alive and uninjured.

    About a month after that I picked her up and held her and, purring loudly, she pressed her muzzle to my cheek. I knew then she had accepted me as hers. Given whom I was dealing with, the “I could bite you but I won’t” explanation seems hella plausible.

  6. A perfect counterpoint to Ashley: Our cat, Sugar. I’ve blogged about her once before.

    Sugar has always been extremely gentle, friendly, and well-mannered towards humans…but shows less tendency to do the Nose of Peace with humans than other cats I’ve known. She’d rather go straight to the snuggle and lick; it’s like she bypasses the whole mutual-suspicion stage completely, so the Nose of Peace doesn’t have a place in the repertoire.

    On the other hand, I have seen her do it with other cats.

  7. My kitty is a bit weird, as am I. He does head-butts, but no nose. He does like it when I bite his tail lightly. I like it when he’s upside down in my arms, he combing my moustache with his lunchhooks. He almost never says meow, but is willing to groan, moan, whine, chirp, purr and sigh to get his meaning across.

    I have had other kittehs which did nose, though.

    Look at the Atomic Nerds’ site. They discuss how their Siamese tomcat and their two huge Akitas get along by understanding each others’ body language, and by the dogs understanding that the cat is the boss. They do allow the cat access to a Beretta 92, according to a pic they published.

  8. On the other hand, I have seen her do it with other cats.

    Not surprising. Cats respond to humans they trust as they would to a parent. Other cats require more thorough checking out…

    He does head-butts, but no nose.

    See, when a cat rubs their cheek against your legs, that’s not affection. That’s just them scenting you to let everybody know you’re theirs, When they press their forehead to you and hold it, that’s a form of affection. :)

    1. >Diplomacy fail. Sometimes the Nose of Peace does not have its intended effects, at which point it meets the Incisors of War.

      Nah. Those are Malamute puppies, and they’re playing a bite-face game that’s a slightly more explicit version of Lorenzian uncompleted aggression than the Nose of Peace. I’ve seen Malamutes do this myself; it’s actually a friendship gesture, quite common between related dogs.

  9. Fascinating that this gesture extends across mammalian species. That does suggest very old roots. I wonder if it works with Upper Management?

  10. “I wonder if it works with Upper Management?”

    Hah! That brings to mind a whole sequence of outrageous Dilbert cartoons…
    Wonder if Scott Adams reads esr?

  11. I learned the nuzzle from a lifetime with cats. After 20 years, I discovered that the Nose of Peace is a Standard Operating Procedure with domestic rabbits. A fwiendly wabbit will make up for slow-witted humans by offering the Nose of Peace to your ankle bone.

  12. There is something objectionable about calling it the nose of ‘peace.’

    There is something beyond peace, something affectionate and sweet, about this gesture.

    I think of groups like Peace Now in Israel when I say this. Obnoxious leftwing activists have ruined the word peace.

    The nose of love perhaps? Or how about an Eskimo Kiss?

  13. > Wonder if Scott Adams reads esr?

    Scott Adams has a google search on his name that sends messages to his Blackberry.

    Take *that*, Kibo…

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