When dogs exhibit abnormal behaviour, they’re often trying to tell us that something is wrong. Whether loss of appetite or having accidents in the house, changes that are out of the norm often warrant a trip to the vet. Head pressing is one such behaviour that requires immediate vet attention. But what is head pressing in dogs?
“Unlike your dog trying to nuzzle into you affectionately, head pressing is defined by a much more compulsive quality,” says Dr Rebecca Greenstein, veterinary medical advisor for Rover and chief veterinarian at Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital. “A dog will seek out a wall, or surface, or even the corner of a room, and compulsively press their head against it.” Head pressing can be a sign of a neurological problem, so it’s important to address it right away.
With the help of Dr Greenstein, we’ll walk through the signs of head pressing, common underlying causes, and why getting to the vet ASAP is so crucial.
What Is Head Pressing in Dogs?
Let’s start with what head pressing is not: it’s not your dog butting you with their head trying to get your attention or pushing into a toy or bed, trying to play or achieve an objective. According to Dr Greenstein, head pressing is when your dog is pressing into a surface “even though there’s no rational reason.”
As opposed to the occasional head butt, head pressing is compulsive. It’s a frequent, patterned behaviour. Dr Greenstein says one way to tell is if you try to redirect your dog from the behaviour and they go straight back to it.
What Are The Symptoms of Head Pressing?
Below, we’ll take a look at some symptoms associated with head pressing that may indicate an underlying neurological medical issue.
- Pressing against a wall or surface. As described above, if your dog is compulsively pushing themself against a surface with no clear rationale, there may be an underlying neurological issue.
- Reduced reflexes. Reduced body movement or weakness may indicate a problem with the nervous system.
- Lethargy. Drowsiness or lethargic behaviour is a very common symptom of an underlying illness that can also accompany head pressing.
- Excessive pacing. Pacing or circling, especially compulsively, can be an indicator that a brain issue is present.
- Sores. These can appear due to the skin being consistently rubbed against a surface. Dr Greenstein points out that these are often found on the snout, but may also appear on other parts of the body.
- Frequent seizures. Seizures, or a lack of control over body movements, are another serious indication that a dog is experiencing a neurological issue.
- Behavioural changes. Sudden changes in behaviour, such as out-of-the-blue aggression, can signal a medical issue in the brain.
- Vision problems. If your dog is bumping into things, or showing other signs of visual impairment, it could be related to an underlying brain problem.
What Causes Head Pressing In Dogs?
There are many types of neurological issues that can cause head pressing. Below, we’ll take a look at what those common causes are:
Canine distemper virus closely resembles measles in humans, and eventually progresses from fever and vomiting to seizures and convulsions. Due to the seriousness of the virus’s effect on the neurological system, head pressing may be a sign, and it’s why Dr Greenstein says distemper is a core puppy vaccination.
Neurological diseases are broad, but Dr Greenstein says that “anything that can affect the brain in specific places, in the forebrain and thalamus, can result in head pressing, amongst other behaviours.” One example is neoplasia—tumours that form in the nervous system, including the brain. However, infections and inflammation can also be part of neurological disease.
Hepatic encephalopathy can develop in dogs with liver disorders. Dr Greenstein explains that neurological signs, such as head pressing, can present themselves when there is a dysfunction of the liver because it plays such a key role in detoxification. She explains that dogs with liver shunts can be susceptible. Certain breeds can be prone to shunts, such as the Yorkshire Terrier, Maltese, Labrador Retriever and Golden Retriever.
Sodium deficiency or hyponatremia
Though not very common, according to Dr Greenstein, salt deficiencies, can cause neurological signs. And the opposite is true. Dr Greenstein says that excess salt, such as a dog eating homemade playdough or lapping up liquid in a saltwater pool, can cause neurological signs, such as head pressing and tremors.
A cancerous tumour, or even a benign tumour such as meningioma, can present neurological issues. Brain cancer is, of course, extremely serious. But, despite its inability to turn cancerous, meningioma takes up space in the skull and can cause symptoms such as circling, blindness, and head pressing.
Unfortunately, poisoning can happen through ingesting certain houseplants, household items, and even lead poisoning. If you suspect your dog has eaten something toxic, get to the vet or call Animal Poison Line right away.
Though gastrointestinal problems are what pet parents typically anticipate when something poisonous is ingested, it can also produce neurological signs, too, such as twitching, seizures and other symptoms, including head pressing.
As mentioned in neurological disorders, infections can also affect the brain and produce symptoms, such as head pressing. A well-known example is rabies. Exposure to rabies is extremely serious and fatal if untreated; an emergency that requires immediate vet attention. The infection penetrates the nervous system ascending to the brain and, in addition to signs like head pressing, can cause hallucinations, behavioural changes, and paralysis.
How Do Vets Diagnose Head Pressing?
“Your vet will want to perform a physical and neurological exam,” says Dr Greenstein when it comes to diagnosing head pressing. In addition to checking heart rate and eyes, she says that veterinarians will want to look at bloodwork for blood cell abnormalities, liver function, and electrolyte levels to help get to the root cause.
Depending on the situation, your vet may also want to perform an MRI or CT scan, especially if a brain tumour or mass is suspected.
How Is Head Pressing in Dogs Treated?
“Treatment of head pressing is uniquely tied to the underlying cause,” says Dr Greenstein.
As we’ve discussed, the causes behind head pressing vary widely. Accidentally ingested poison is treated very different from a brain tumour. Depending on the cause, treatments can range from fluids and antibiotics to chemotherapy and radiation.
As we can see, head pressing is a serious issue that requires immediate veterinary attention, as it often indicates an issue with the brain.
Due to the wide-ranging possible underlying causes of head pressing, it’s key to get a dog displaying this behaviour to a vet quickly, in order to get a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
“You want to catch any disease at the earliest stages possible,” says Dr Greenstein, “because the earlier you catch certain conditions, it may make them more treatable and we might be able to medicate to try and slow the progression of conditions that could be escalating.”