One of the most distressing things we can see a dog do is the behavior known as “head pressing,” often accompanied by circling and pacing. This is nearly always a sign of serious, even life-threatening, illness and requires an immediate trip to the veterinarian.
Here’s how I explained it to a reader who asked for information:
Q: Last night my dog was pacing, circling and pressing his head against the wall. Should I be worried?
A: Head pressing can be a sign of a serious problem. It has a number of possible causes, including liver conditions, poisoning and traumatic injuries. If you notice this behavior in a pet, it warrants a rapid trip to the veterinarian for an exam to determine the cause.
A liver-related condition that can cause head pressing in young dogs is liver shunt, which occurs when abdominal blood vessels don’t develop properly. Blood from the intestines bypasses the liver — where it would normally be cleansed of waste products — and enters normal circulation, allowing buildup of toxins in the body. We usually see it in tiny dogs such as Maltese or Yorkshire terriers, but it can also affect larger breeds.
Older dogs can develop cirrhosis, not because they’re hard drinkers, but because the liver’s ability to function is affected by internal infections or long-term use of certain medications.
Toxins such as lead, certain herbicides or insecticides, rodent poisons, amanita mushrooms, blue-green algae and cycad plants such as sago palms can all seriously affect the liver and cause signs such as head pressing, as well as loss of appetite, depression and seizures.
Encephalitis, inflammation of the brain, is another possible cause of head pressing. So is trauma such as being hit by a car or a head injury from a fall.
Dogs who are head pressing against a wall or other hard surface may also have a neck injury, disk herniation or brain tumor.
Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam and lab work. If a brain disorder is suspected, your dog may need an MRI or PET/CT scan. Depending on the diagnosis, your dog may be treated with medication, surgery or rehab techniques.
Read more in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.