If your dog walked over to a wall, pressed his head up against it and just stood there without moving, you might pass it off as a random oddity or your dog just being silly. However, head pressing in dogs is an unusual compulsive behavior that signals that something is physically wrong with your pup.
“It’s usually a sign of disease in the front part of the brain, but can also be seen with metabolic diseases,” says Michelle Murray, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM (Neurology), CCRT, owner of NEST Veterinary Neurology in San Clemente, California. “For example, severe liver disease can cause toxin buildup in the body, which causes the brain cells to not function properly.”
Common conditions associated with compulsive head pressing in dogs include brain tumors, poisoning, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), stroke, nervous system infections (such as rabies or bacterial, fungal or viral infections) or an injury to the brain (for instance, if your dog hit or fell on his head).
“I have seen head pressing in dogs most often associated with brain tumors, however, I have also seen it with many other diseases, including immune-mediated brain diseases, infectious diseases, congenital brain diseases and vascular diseases,” Dr. Murray explains. “It’s more a function of where in the brain the problem is, rather than the specific disease itself.”
Head pressing in dogs is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as pacing (especially pacing in circles), changes in behavior, suddenly having accidents in the house, getting “stuck” in corners (seemingly can’t find his way out of a corner of the room), seizures and vision problems.
Although we know what physical issues to suspect when dogs are head pressing, no one really knows the exact reasons why they express this behavior. “It’s hard to know if the dogs are experiencing pain,” Dr. Murray explains. “Many people with brain diseases complain of headaches. In my opinion, these dogs do not seem obviously [in pain], but could they have a dull headache? It’s certainly possible.”
If you see or even think your dog is head pressing, do not delay seeking veterinary treatment. Your vet will do a complete physical exam to try to determine what might be causing this behavior. During the exam, the vet will check your dog’s blood pressure and inspect his eyes.
“After evaluating your dog, the veterinarian will probably recommend doing some baseline testing to rule out metabolic diseases, including lab work (blood and urine) and x-rays,” Dr. Murray says. “If your vet does these things and still suspects a brain problem, he may recommend a referral to a veterinary neurologist for imaging of the brain (MRI) and possibly even taking a sample of spinal fluid to look for infections or abnormal cells.”
The prognosis for head pressing in dogs is highly dependent upon the exact cause and how severe the problem is. Because we’re talking about the brain, it’s definitely a serious situation. The sooner you seek veterinary help, the better off your dog will be. “In general, this is a very serious symptom that should be addressed as soon as possible,” Dr. Murray advises.
Tell us: Have you ever witnessed head pressing in your dogs? What was the culprit?
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