It’s funny. When we read the Internet, we have access to more knowledge than at any other point in history. You name it, it’s on there. You can find and buy the lunch box your best friend’s little brother had in elementary school. You can gamble, buy stock, and find your next spouse, or at least your next date. And yet, with all of this information at our fingertips, we spend the majority of our time looking for medical information in a vain attempt to self-diagnose illnesses we probably don’t have. Meanwhile, we often miss the signs of illness in our pets, dismissing them as quirks or strange habits.
It can be easy to miss changes to your dog’s appetite or changes to her elimination habits. And a lot of these changes, by themselves, really don’t amount to much. But there are some changes that shouldn’t be ignored. For instance, something called “head pressing."
The Root of the Behavior
Head pressing is defined as a dog’s compulsion to press her head against a wall or similar solid object for no apparent reason. It’s an unusual action and can easily be confused for silly or playful behavior in an attempt to get a human’s attention. However, it is indicative of a number of underlying medical concerns, all of which are quite concerning. Your dog presses her head against the wall because her head hurts. In people, most headaches are annoying distractions, something for which you take a couple of aspirin, and maybe step away from the computer or the television screen for a few hours. If it’s particularly bad, you might go to bed for a while. Dogs get headaches too, but the kind of headache that drives a dog to head pressing is not a tension or a sinus headache. Your dog is experiencing severe pain and possibly some dizziness and confusion as well.
The kind of pain that would drive a dog to press her head against the wall often comes from a tumor, specifically tumors located in the skull, neck, or brain of a dog. As you might imagine, such a growth can cause immense pain. Other brain diseases, especially those affecting the forebrain, also called the prosencephalon, will lead to head pressing. Head pressing is often a symptom of infections of the nervous system, such as rabies or a fungal infection. Metabolic disorders can also lead to head pressing. Another cause for head pressing would be acute head trauma, such as might occur with a fall or a car accident. If your dog is experiencing a stroke, she may press her head out of dizziness or confusion. Exposure to toxins such as lead can also lead to head pressing. If you see your dog pressing her head against a wall or other hard surface, there is a reason - other than play - why she is doing it. In such cases, your dog needs to see a vet immediately.
Encouraging the Behavior
Head pressing is a sign of a serious medical condition and needs to be treated as a veterinary emergency. However, it’s important to remember that head pressing is a symptom. Your dog will often exhibit other symptoms, such as anxious pacing, irregular reflexes, problems with vision, or even seizures long before she begins head pressing. Any of these symptoms in and of itself is a reason to go to the vet. For instance, if your dog is suddenly not able to see a ball you’ve thrown for her retrieval, or if she has sudden difficulty walking up or down stairs, she may be having vision problems.
Another symptom of vision problems is overreliance on smell. Does your dog appear to sniff for a toy you’re offering her, or does she come over and take it from you? If she delays and sniffs, it might be because she is having trouble seeing it. If your dog is having difficulties with her reflexes, you might see changes in her gait or stance. Problems with reflexes often first present as dizziness in your dog. If you suspect she has any problem with her reflexes, you can check her for yourself by pinching a toe. She should suddenly flex her whole leg.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Regular vet checkups are certainly a good idea, but it is also wise to have a notion of what sort of symptoms might indicate a serious and otherwise hidden condition. In the case of head pressing, it would be an excellent idea to quickly familiarize yourself with symptoms of canine dizziness, loss of vision, confusion, and reflex issues. Then ask yourself: have I seen any of these symptoms in my dog lately? Your vet will need to know the answers to those questions, and you can give them a bit of thought on the drive over. You’ll be better able to give an accurate and pertinent answer if you’ve already thought about it; certainly a better answer than one you give on a moment’s notice while you’re in the examination room with your dog.
The words “brain tumor” are surely frightening to anyone, and even more so when a family member is the one suffering. That said, such medical issues are often treatable if caught in time. Keep your wits about you, be informed, and think through any symptoms you’ve observed; your vet and certainly your dog are counting on you.