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My Cat Is Pressing Their Head Against Me, Should I Worry? Facts & FAQ

Different than head butting, cat head pressing is not about showing affection. There are a few causes for this behavior — and some of them are serious.

Head butting is just one weird cat behavior you might notice with your cat. Photography ©krblokhin | Getty Images.
Head butting is just one weird cat behavior you might notice with your cat. Photography ©krblokhin | Getty Images.
Last Updated on November 29, 2023 by Catster Editorial Team

What is cat head pressing, and why exactly does it happen? Let me start by saying that the type of head pressing I’m discussing in this article is not the same as the cat headbutt. By head butting, I am referring to the affectionate behavior exhibited by cats in which they bump their head and then rub their face on your hand, face, leg, or an inanimate object. This behavior, which occurs in domestic and wild cats (I have seen lions and tigers do it), is a gesture of friendliness and a solicitation of affection. (It is wise to give affection to domestic cats engaging in this behavior; it is very unwise to attempt to give affection to a lion or tiger when they engage in this behavior.)

What is cat head pressing, then?

This cat may not be enjoying the moment.
What are the symptoms of cat head pressing? Photography by By TungCheung / Shutterstock.

Cat head pressing is something different altogether. Cats that engage in cat head pressing press their heads against something — usually a wall or a piece of furniture, or in a veterinary setting a kennel wall — relentlessly. They often push continuously and will move along the item against which they are pressing until they reach a corner. At that point they become stuck, with their head pathologically pressed into the corner.

Cat head pressing often does not occur on its own. Abnormal vocalization may occur. Cats may be noted at other times to walk continuously in circles, usually only in one direction. They may suffer from disorientation and other weird behaviors. Their pupils may dilate and constrict at unpredictable intervals. Seizures may occur.

Head pressing is a manifestation of a neurological disorder. Specifically, cat head pressing and the symptoms that go along with it usually are caused by problems with the central nervous system. In other words, head pressing occurs when something goes wrong with the brain.

I am sorry to say that cat head pressing is serious business. Most of the causes of head pressing are big deals.

Intoxication may cause head pressing in cats

Some form of intoxication is the best case scenario when it comes to cat head pressing. When I say intoxication, I mean it both colloquially — I have seen cats engage in head pressing after exposure to alcohol, marijuana, and prescription or illicit drugs — and literally. Some cats will react to certain potential toxins such as cheap flea preventatives, lime-sulfur dips and amitraz (an anti-parasitic drug that is used in dogs and to which cats are sometimes accidentally exposed) with disorientation and head pressing. Less perniciously, cats who have received tranquilizing medications or who are recovering from anesthesia in a veterinary office may exhibit temporary head pressing. Although fatal intoxications are possible, most such episodes can be treated with no long-term consequences.

Certain diseases cause cat head pressing

Other causes of cat head pressing are more worrisome. Cats with encephalitis or neurological manifestations of FIV/feline AIDS, feline leukemia virus and feline infectious peritonitis may suffer from head pressing. Brain infection with toxoplasmosis may lead to the condition as well. Hereditary brain anomalies also are common causes of cat head pressing.

Certain metabolic and glandular conditions can affect the brain and cause cat head pressing. Liver disease can lead to a condition called hepatic encephalopathy; head pressing is common among cats with the condition. Similarly, kidney disease can lead to renal encephalopathy. Unregulated diabetes can lead to a condition called ketoacidosis, or to another condition called nonketotic hyperosmolar syndrome. Either can affect the brain and lead to head pressing. Over-treatment for diabetes, in which cats receive overdoses of insulin, can lead to low blood sugar which also may trigger head pressing.

Cancer is unfortunately a common cause of head pressing in cats

Finally, there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room that cannot be ignored. Cancer — in the form of brain tumors or brain infiltration with lymphoma — is one of the more common causes of cat head pressing.

Is your cat head pressing? What to do:

That’s a lot of scary information. If you notice cat head pressing, take your kitty to the vet. But you should not panic. Although many of the conditions that cause head pressing are serious, not all of them progress rapidly (and some of them — the toxicities— may resolve completely). I have known many cats who intermittently head pressed for years without developing other symptoms that compromised their quality of life.

Thumbnail: Photography ©krblokhin | Getty Images.

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About the Author

Dr. Eric Barchas
Dr. Eric Barchas

Dr. Eric Barchas is a professional traveler who spends his spare time working as a full-time veterinarian; contributing to Dogster and Catster; walking, cooking, camping, and exploring the outdoors; skiing (when conditions permit); and reading Booker-shortlisted novels. In between trips Dr. Barchas lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Denise, and his canine pal, Buster. His main veterinary interests are emergency and critical care, wellness, pain management and promotion of the human-animal bond. Dr. Barchas has to Dogster and Catster since May 2005. 

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