What to Know About Cat Head Pressing

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on November 16, 2022
4 min read

Perfectly healthy cats sometimes sleep in awkward positions, resting with their head pressed up against the couch or your leg. It's also normal for your cat to butt its head against your hand or face to get your attention. But a cat pressing its head against things that are not alive, like a wall or couch, may need to see the vet. This behavior is called head pressing and can be a sign of a problem with the cat's nervous system.

Head pressing is when a cat pushes their head against a wall or other hard surface over and over for no apparent reason. This is different than head butting, where your cat bumps or rubs their head against you as a sign of affection. Head pressing is a compulsive behavior, meaning the cat can't help but do it. Unlike the gentle nudges of head butting, head pressing looks like long, persistent pressure against something nonliving, like furniture or a door.

A cat pressing its head against a wall may be sick or injured. Head pressing is a sign that something is affecting the cat's nervous system. Some of the possible causes of cat head pressing include:

Encephalitis. This is an inflammation of the brain that causes it to swell. Sometimes infection causes encephalitis, and the vet will prescribe medication to treat the infection. Steroids are often prescribed for encephalitis that's not caused by an infection.

Metabolic disorders. Cats can experience neurological symptoms if they have too much or too little of certain minerals in their blood, especially calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

Infection. A nervous system infection can be bacterial (caused by bacteria), viral (caused by a virus), fungal (caused by fungus), or parasitic (caused by a parasite). Toxoplasmosis, for instance, happens when the cat's immune system is not able to fight off a common parasite. Once they start on medication, though, cats with toxoplasmosis usually start getting better in two to three days.

Liver shunts. The liver's job is to clean the animal's blood, taking out any toxins as the blood flows through the liver on its way to the heart. In some cats, the blood vessel that would normally lead to the liver goes straight to the heart instead, bypassing the liver altogether. For some of these cats, changing their diet is enough to help with symptoms. Other cats need surgery to correct the problem.

Stroke. A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of the brain suddenly stops, often because of a blood clot. Strokes are uncommon in cats but have been recorded in cats aged 2 to 21.

Toxicity. Cats can be poisoned by eating plants, especially plants in the lily family, human medications, antifreeze, and other household items. Cat owners sometimes accidentally introduce toxins by applying dog flea treatment or bug spray to their cat.

Brain injury. Causes of brain injury in cats include seizures, heart disease, diabetes, or being hit by a car. Care for a cat with a brain injury is complex. They may need oxygen, intravenous (IV) fluids, or sedation (medication to help them stay calm or sleep). The vet will need to balance their blood pressure and blood sugar. Many young cats with mild brain injuries do heal, but recovery may take six months or longer.

Tumors. Brain tumors are rare in cats. When they do happen, treatment options range from palliative care — treating the symptoms and side effects the tumor causes — to surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. The outcome of these treatments depends on the type of tumor and where it's located.

A cat may push its head against hard objects so much that it ends up with face or head injuries. If this happens to your cat, it's important to get them to the vet as soon as possible.

Along with head pressing, watch for other signs of problems with your cat's nervous system:

  • Seizures 
  • Repetitive pacing or circling
  • Changes in behavior
  • Vision problems

If you notice your cat pressing its head against hard objects, call your vet. They may do some of the following tests to find out what's wrong: 

Blood pressure. The vet or their assistant may place an inflatable cuff on your cat's leg or tail to measure their blood pressure. Usually, several readings are taken and averaged to get an accurate measurement.

Eye exam. The vet may give your cat an eye exam, looking at the back of each eye for signs of infection, inflammation, or problems in the brain.

Lab tests. The vet may test your cat's blood and urine for signs of infection, metabolic problems, or exposure to toxins.

Imaging. The vet may order a computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of your cats' brain. These tests can show inflammation, infection, internal bleeding, and some types of cancer.

Treatment will depend on the reason for the head pressing. If, for instance, your cat has a metabolic disorder, you may just need to give it medicine at home. Other causes may require surgery and a hospital stay. Either way, once your cat is recovering at home, call your vet if any new symptoms pop up. And be sure to keep all follow-up appointments so your vet can monitor your cat's progress.