Head Pressing in Cats

Key Takeaways

Head pressing in cats is a behavior where the cat presses its head against a wall or other inanimate object for a prolonged period without obvious awareness of its surroundings. 

• Head pressing is not to be confused with a cat’s instinct to rub its head against things or people as a method of communication

• Head pressing is an uncommon symptom and merits prompt veterinary attention, especially if accompanied by compulsive pacing, changes in behavior, damaged reflexes, seizures or sight impairment

• Head pressing is caused by a disruption to the brain or surrounding structures due to trauma, toxicosis, altered nervous system function, liver dysfunction, or a metabolic disorder

• Diagnosis of the specific underlying condition often involves a physical examination, blood work, and diagnostic imaging

• Treatment and outcomes depend on the underlying cause

A Closer Look: What is Head Pressing in Cats?

Head pressing itself is not an emergency, however the root cause is often a serious illness that requires prompt veterinary attention. Head pressing typically does not occur on its own. Other symptoms that commonly accompany head pressing include:

Pacing or circling compulsively • Changes in trained behavior • Reduced reflexes • Seizures

• Blindness or impaired vision • Irregular gait

Veterinary attention is required to identify the cause and determine a treatment plan. In some cases, hospitalization is required.

Possible Causes

Potential underlying causes of head pressing include:

• Head trauma • Hepatic lipidosis • Infectious diseases, such as feline leukemia virus or rabies

• Portosystemic shunt • Tumors within the brain or around the brain • Electrolyte imbalances • Hydrocephaly

• Poisoning - exposure to toxins such as rat poison (bromethalin), antifreeze, or pyrethroid based pesticides

• Epilepsy • Liver failure

Risk Factors

There is not much variation in the severity of head pressing itself, however the potential underlying conditions vary greatly in their seriousness and potential outcomes. Diagnostic work-up by a veterinarian is required to determine the underlying cause and the prognosis.

Testing and Diagnosis

Head pressing, especially when accompanied by trouble walking, blindness or seizures, requires veterinarian attention to determine underlying causes and plan treatment. Diagnostic tools include:

• Physical examination • Blood work • Diagnostic imaging, including CT or MRI • Urinalysis

• Examination of the eye to screen for inflammatory or infectious diseases 

Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause. Outcomes are difficult to generalize due to the variety of possible underlying causes. Patients often require repeated veterinary visits to monitor their progress as they undergo treatment.

Similar symptoms

Head pressing differs from the usual cat behavior known as bunting. Bunting is the pressing of the head or rubbing of the face against people or inanimate objects. Cats use scent glands to communicate by leaving their pheromones on surfaces. The difference between bunting and head pressing is that in bunting, the head press is fleeting, the cat is aware of their surroundings, and they appear to enjoy the activity. 

Head tilt or head turn are sometimes mistaken for head pressing. These are symptoms of disruption to the vestibular system and are accompanied by impairment to balance. Cats also get stuck in corners when they are suffering from feline cognitive dysfunction. In these cases, cats are stuck because they have forgotten how to get out of the corner, and may appear distressed or anxious. They may push on objects with their head as they try to escape from the corner, which is not the same head pressing continuously.

Associated Symptoms

Secondary symptoms such as compulsive pacing can lead to injuries on the feet, such as blisters. In some cases, injuries to the face and head occur from prolonged head pressing.

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