If you spend any time on the Internet these days, you're likely bombarded with images and videos of cats being, well, cats — engaging in adorable and often amusing feline antics, like suddenly racing around the house in a case of the "zoomies" or butting their head up against their favorite person.
While the zoomies releases pent-up energy and is a usually normal behavior, and headbutting is a sure sign of cat love, if your cat is pressing his head against any inanimate object relentlessly, say, a wall or floor, it's not just another weird but normal cat behavior, it's a sign of a serious neurological condition and can also indicate damage to the nervous system that necessitates immediate veterinary intervention.
Consequently, it's important to know the difference between adoring headbutting and dangerous head pressing so you can identify if your cat is loving on you or in deep trouble.
Headbutting vs head pressing
What a wonderful feeling it is to know your cat is as crazy about you as you are about her. And one of the ways your cat shows her adoration is by butting heads with you, or butting any part of your body; just another example of the complex body language of cats. This sweet sharing of affection is commonly called "headbutting," a feline behavior officially known as head bunting, and universally coveted by cat aficionados. But along with expressing love, your cat is also marking you as her property by activating the scent glands located in her head just above the eyes to release pheromones. When you are participating in the head butt, you lean your forehead into the trajectory of your cat's head who bumps or butts your head with hers. Depending on your cat's temperament or mood, the butts can be quite soft and short-lived, or more emphatic and ongoing.
In stark contrast, head pressing is a sign of a a serious neurological condition that is triggered by a brain tumor, stroke, exposure to toxins, or a handful of other possible medical conditions. In head pressing, a cat presses her head into the floor, a wall, or other inanimate object. The behavior comes on randomly, seemingly without reason or provocation, and is a compulsive act, continuous to the point where the cat may even develop sores on her feet from constant motion.
Causes of head pressing
Head pressing in cats has a number of root causes, explains Dr. Karen Becker of Mercola Pets. All are serious and if your cat is exhibiting this behavior, he should be taken to the vet immediately for diagnosis and treatment. The reasons for head pressing may include the following:
- Brain tumors: Abnormal growth of cells that form masses that either invade or compress the brain. Relatively common in older cats, brain tumors present with symptoms including head pressing. Brain tumors are incurable, but treatable, and in addition to inflammation of the brain and also pain, symptoms vary depending on the parts of the brain affected.
- Liver shunts: typically a problem for dogs, liver shunts also occur in cats when the blood flow to and through the liver is compromised. Since the liver is a filter designed to remove blood-borne toxins, synthesize and distribute proteins to the body, and store a form of sugar called glycogen, when it can't do its job, a liver shunt is the result. A liver shunt can be inside the liver (intra-hepatic) or outside the liver (extra-hepatic).
- Poisoning or exposure to toxins, such as ingesting poisonous plants, for instance.
- Metabolic disorders.
- Glandular disorders.
- Acute head trauma.
- Hepatic or renal encephalopathy.
- Prosencephalon disease.
- Infection of the nervous system. Damage to the nervous system may be the result of a fungal infection or disease such as rabies.
Other symptoms that may accompany head pressing
In addition to a cat pressing her head into a floor or a wall where she ultimately may end up stuck in a corner, other symptoms often accompany head pressing and include the following:
- Abnormal vocalization
- Compulsive pacing or circling
- Balance issues
- Visual problems
- Behavior changes
Further, the physical act of head pressing itself can lead to seizures and trauma to the head and eyes, says Dr. Becker.
How a vet diagnoses head pressing
For veterinarians, head pressing is a challenging diagnosis, says Dr. Becker, because there are so many potential underlying causes. The first thing your veterinarian will do is review your cat's health history and ask if you have traveled with your cat or introduced anything new into your cat's environment.
You'll be asked for your observations of the head pressing behavior, such as when it started and any incidents that could have triggered it.
Diagnostics will include a fundic exam, which is an examination of the retina and structures in the back of the eye, explains Dr. Becker, checking for inflammatory or infectious diseases and irregularities in the brain.
Your cat's blood pressure will be checked for elevation. Imaging scans of the brain will be conducted via either computed tomography or CT or magnetic resonance imaging or MRI since X-rays do not allow visualization of brain tissue. To evaluate metabolic disorders, a urinalysis will be performed. Blood tests are needed to check for toxic exposure or any infections. Depending on your cat's clinical symptoms, further diagnostic tests will be conducted if your vet determines there could be other potential underlying causes for the head pressing.
Treatment and prognosis of head pressing
Treatment and prognosis of head pressing is entirely dependent, of course, on an accurate diagnosis reached by your veterinarian as each underlying cause will require a different method of treatment. If your cat is undergoing severe symptoms, he will need to be hospitalized and his condition stabilized before proceeding with any treatment protocol.
Treatments vary in cost, difficulty, time involved, and overall prognosis, and include surgery and/or medical management.
If you have a cat who is pressing her head into any inanimate object in a compulsive manner, you will need to know the difference between headbutting and head pressing to identify this medical emergency. Once you determine your cat is indeed head pressing, it's vital to get to a vet as soon as possible for a diagnosis and treatment.