Head Pressing

Pets use their heads the way people use their hands -- for exploring, rubbing, or just saying "Hi." But sometimes they will act more like billy goats than dogs or cats. They will drop their heads and walk straight into walls, sometimes getting "stuck" for hours until their owners rescue them or until they come to their senses and walk away.

This condition, called Head pressing, would be humorous if it weren't so serious. It is often caused by liver problems, explains Grant Nisson, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland. The liver is responsible for removing toxins from the bloodstream. When it isn't working properly, toxins stay in the blood and enter the brain. This can make dogs and cats act very strangely, with Head pressing being one of the most common signs.

In young pets, Head pressing is often caused by a liver shunt. This is an inherited condition in which they are born with an extra blood vessel that ships blood around, instead of through, the liver, says Karen Munana, D.V.M., associate professor of neurology at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh. Other symptoms of a liver shunt include drooling, loss of vision, and slow growth during the early months.

In older pets, Head pressing may be a sign of cirrhosis, a serious breakdown of the liver that can be caused by dozens of different problems, from internal infections to the long-term use of certain medicines. Ear infections may cause it as well.

Brain diseases can also cause Head pressing. Pets with encephalitis, for example, develop inflammation in the brain, which can make them do odd things, says Deena Tiches, D.V.M., a veterinary neurologist in private practice in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Viral infections such as distemper or rabies also affect the brain, as do some bacterial infections.

Brain tumors are always a possibility, adds Dr. Tiches. As they get larger, they may begin pressing on tissues within the brain, changing the way it works. Pets with brain tumors may act strangely in many ways, including Walking in circles as well as engaging in Head pressing.

See Your Vet If...

  • Head pressing is accompanied by other types of odd behavior.
  • Your pet seems ill or confused.
  • Your pet has begun growling at or biting people.
  • He gets panicky in certain situations, such as during thunderstorms.
  • He has started pressing his head against walls.
  • Your pet is having accidents in the house.
  • He is overly possessive of food or toys.
  • You can't stop him from barking or meowing.
  • Your pet's voice has changed.
  • He gets obsessed with odd behaviors, like chasing his tail or biting his feet.
  • He urinates when people approach.
  • Your pet seems depressed or lethargic.
  • He is constantly biting, scratching, or licking himself.
  • He often stands with his legs wide apart or at an awkward angle.
  • His back arches even when he is not frightened.
  • He appears to be having seizures.
  • Your pet hesitates to take orders.
  • He growls during play.
  • He hisses for no reason.

Copyright 1999 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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