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Ask the Vet: What is Head Pressing in Dogs?

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Head pressing in dogs may appear as a peculiar behavior, but depending on how it presents, it can be a sign of something very wrong. Not all dog owners will witness this behavior, so this is one of those things that it is best being aware about, so that, just in case, you know what to do if your dog does it. In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec discusses head pressing in dogs and what it may signal.

 Head pressing in dogs may be due to a variety of disorders

Head pressing in dogs may be due to a variety of disorders

What is Head Pressing in Dogs?

Dogs interact and basically communicate with us in a plethora of different manners. Some of those interactions are funny, some are weird and some are indicative of an underlying and potentially life-threatening condition.

If your dog is pressing its head against the wall it means there is something serious going on.

This interaction indicates a potentially life-threatening condition. It may appear funny and weird at first but head pressing in dogs is a scary symptom that warrants an immediate trip to the vet’s office.

Head pressing, in the medical literature, is defined as the compulsive act of pressing the head against solid objects (usually walls) for no obvious and apparent reasons. More often than not, the head pressing becomes a repetitive motion. Dogs press their heads over and over again, until, over time, the condition is performed reflexively, just like sneezing or scratching an itchy sore.

The head pressing as a motion is not dangerous on its own. However, the compulsive need of pressing the head is indicative of a damaged nervous system. The damage can be due to disease or injury.

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Causes of Head Pressing in Dogs 

There can be several potential causes of head pressing in dogs. Following is a list of several causes that can trigger it.

Salt Imbalance in Dogs 

Just because dogs cannot choose the amount of salt in their meal it does not mean they do not need it. Salt is a crucial part of the dog’s diet.

Sodium plays many vital roles in the body. Proper water movement through the body is one of those roles. If there is too little or too much sodium, water cannot effectively move. Consequently, the dog becomes dehydrated. On the long run, salt imbalances can trigger brain swelling followed by seizures.

The most common causes of salt imbalances are bad bouts of vomiting and diarrhea and kidney diseases.

Brain Tumors in Dogs 

Brain tumors can develop in any type of dog and are more common in older individuals. Brain tumors, just like other tumors, can be either benign or cancerous. Sadly, even benign tumors may trigger a plethora of unpleasant symptoms.

Tumors grow, and as they expand, they press against the surrounding tissues. When a brain tumor grows, depending on its exact location, it affects how the different areas of the brain work.

Over time, the growth of the tumor can be so significant that it damages the nervous system. The discomfort caused by the damage can be expressed by head pressing.

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Rabies in Dogs 

Rabies is an infectious and life-threatening disease that manifests with diverse symptoms such as fear of water, increased salivation and even foaming at the mouth, eating foreign objects and exhibiting compulsive behaviors such as head pressing.

Rabies in dogs can be passed with a bite and because of its particularly high fatality rates it is considered to be a medical emergency.

Parasites in Dogs 

Parasites are common in dogs. Outdoor dogs are more prone to parasitic infestations because of their high exposure to unwanted guests. Some of those guests are harmless while others can cause many serious health issues.

The most common dog parasites are ticks, fleas and intestinal worms. When it comes to causing neurological problems manifested with head pressing, ticks are the usual culprit.

Ticks are responsible for transmitting diseases that damage the nervous system. Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the two most frequently reported tick-borne diseases in dogs with head pressing histories.

Lead Poisoning in Dogs

Unaware of its dangerous effects, in the past, lead was used for all sorts of industrial applications. Lead is particularly present in old houses. Dogs can intentionally or accidentally eat flakes of lead-tainted dust from old houses.

It should be well-noted that lead poisoning is not an acute condition. In fact, it builds up slowly and over a long period of time. Namely, eating few lead flakes once in a while is not harmful at all. On the flip side, the constant exposure to lead is hazardous.

Lead poisoning is linked with brain damage and irreversible intellectual impairment, often manifested with compulsive behaviors, such as head pressing.

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Head Trauma in Dogs 

As in humans, head traumas and concussions in dogs are followed by confusion, disorientation and impaired sense of balance. In dogs, head traumas are usually caused by car accidents and falls from significant heights.

Dogs that sustained head traumas tend to press their heads in order to relieve the pain caused by the injury. Head traumas, no matter how small and insignificant require immediate medical attention.

Stroke in Dogs 

Stroke is the medical term for impaired blood supply in the brain. It can be caused by bleeding in the brain due to a ruptured blood vessel. It can also be caused by a blood clot that becomes lodged in a brain artery which prevents the region of the brain served by that artery from receiving the oxygen and nourishment that it needs.

This type of interruption in the blood supply is called an infraction. In both cases, there is an inadequate blood supply. Without an adequate supply of blood, brain cells die in a few minutes.

The effects of a stroke appear suddenly. They vary in severity, from confusion and disorientation, to seizures and stupor, or even coma and paralysis.

More often than not, stroke occurs without warning signs. The only warning sign, dogs may exhibit is head pressing.

At the Vet's Office 

Head pressing in dogs is not a diagnosis. In fact, it is a symptom of an underlying cause. The course and type of treatment depends on the exact culprit while the treatment’s success and prognosis depend on early and proper diagnosis.

Being a responsible dog parent is a challenging task. If your canine baby seems unwell, give him or her the benefit of doubt. Assume that your dog has a medical condition and see your vet as soon as possible. Hopefully, the vet will rule out the presence of an issue and put your mind at ease.

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

ivana crnec

She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.

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