What Causes Cat Head Pressing?

Cats love to sleep and do it often. They sleep in a variety of locations in our homes and in just about every physical position. Let’s take a look at some common questions pet lovers have about their cat’s sleep patterns and review the causes of head pressing in cats during sleep and when it can be a sign of a larger problem.

What is Normal Cat Sleep Behavior?

How much do cats sleep? Experts estimate that the average feline will sleep 13 to 15 hours per day with some cats sleeping as much as 20 hours a day.

When are Cats Awake Vs. Sleep?

Cats are “crepuscular” which means their activity levels peak at twilight, whether that be at dawn or dusk. This is because their prey is most active at twilight. So, during the moments in-between, cats sleep, and although your pet may be indoors and domesticated, their predatory instincts remain. Pet lovers recognize this as their cats run around the house in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes knocking things over, or pouncing on moving toes while their parents try to sleep.

Where Do Cats Sleep?

What is a normal location for cats to sleep? Cats love to sleep where they feel safe and comfortable, especially high on perches or beds where they can monitor their environment for threats from a safe height. They also love to sleep in boxes, cubbyholes, or hidden on dining room chairs. Small hiding spots are often happy, warm, cozy, and out of reach or sight of predators. Some cats also love to find a slice of sunshine and enjoy the warmth as they take their catnap.

Are Cats Deep or Light Sleepers?

Cats are known to be light sleepers, always being on alert to attacks based on their nature of survival. They can go from a full sleep to fully alert and running in no time.

What Positions Do Normal Cats Sleep In?

Every cat is a little different as far as what position they sleep in. Cats sleep curled up in balls, sprawled out on the back of the sofa, on their backs in the middle of the floor, or curled into a position that appears to be head pressing while sleeping. Some cats will cover their eyes with their paws while sleeping as if to block out the light.
The vast majority of cats sleep curled up in balls with their chin on their chest and their tail tucked gracefully beside them and up the length of their body. This posture is to help them retain their body heat. Cats curl up with their face between their paws or covering their faces as another way retain their body heat and minimize heat loss. Some of these positions will resemble head pressing while sleeping, which can be a normal feline behavior, dome for comfort and relaxation.

Why a Cat Might Press Their Head Against Something While Sleeping

Some owners are worried about their cat head pressing while sleeping. Is this normal behavior? Or is this a symptom of a serious neurological problem? Learn more about What is Head Pressing in Cats?

Some cats will perform a head pressing behavior as they curl up to go to sleep to mark their territory. Cats have scent glands on their cheeks and this head rubbing behavior allows them to mark their territory and take ownership. They may rub and head press against your leg to show affection as they mark you as their territory. Some cats will press their heads against you as you pet them and may even head press against your forehead. Many cats will close their eyes as they affectionately head press.

How to Know the Difference Between a Sign of Disease and Odd Behavior

If you’re worried about whether or not your cat’s head pressing is normal or abnormal, consider the following. If your cat is eating, drinking, playful, and exhibiting otherwise normal behavior, then it is unlikely that these symptoms are worthy of concern.

When it comes to head pressing, if you see your cat doing this against the wall while sitting or while awake, and it appears that your cat doesn’t know what they are doing, this may be an abnormal sign. It can be a medical problem if they press their head up against something or a wall with an unrelaxed or tense posture. Learn more about the medical issues that can cause head pressing in this article: Cat Head Pressing: What You Need to Know.

Additional symptoms of medical problems associated with feline head pressing may include:

  • Behavior changes or changes in learned behavior
  • Circling and walking in one direction
  • Compulsive repetitive behaviors
    Decreased appetite or weight loss
  • Eye changes, such as unequal pupil sizes or inability to blink
  • Falling
  • Head tilt
  • Incoordination or falling over when walking
  • Less engaged with family or with normal activities
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Restlessness and pacing
  • Seizures
  • Sleeping more
  • Stuporous behavior
  • Walking into a wall or other objects
  • Weakness

The brain is an extremely complex structure located in the heads of animals. It is situated within the skull and consists of three major sections that include the brainstem, cerebrum, and cerebellum. The thalamus is a small structure within the brain that acts to communicate sensory and motor signals to the motor and sensory signals. The thalamus, as well as other parts of the brain, has many functions, including regulation of sleep and consciousness. Any disease or condition of the brain can cause abnormal signs. Learn more about the structure and function of the feline brain.

If your cat is showing any of the above signs and/or seems to be head pressing, please contact your veterinarian immediately. There may be a serious and life-threatening underlying cause that requires urgent veterinary care. If your veterinarian is closed, you may be able to email, text or call their office for instructions as to how they handle emergencies. Some veterinarians will send comments via email or text, call you back, schedule a time to see you, or refer you to a specialty hospital with 24-hour care.

When You Should Be Concerned About Cat Head Pressing While Sleeping

You should be concerned if your cat or dog is head pressing against a wall or any object and showing any of the clinical signs listed above. If you have any concerns that your cat’s head pressing or sleeping behavior is not normal, the safest thing to do is to see your veterinarian. Treatment will be dependent on the underlying cause for the symptoms. Early diagnosis is critical for success.

The questions, examinations, and diagnostic tests that your vet may recommend will depend on the condition of your pet and may include the following:

  • If possible, take a video of your cat while demonstrating the abnormal behavior.
  • Search your home for any substance, chemical, medication, or toxin that your pet may have ingested or licked. If you see something your pet may have gotten into, save the container or package for evaluation by your veterinarian. Monitor your pet for abnormal signs, such as vomiting, weakness, or lack of appetite. Check the litter box to evaluate the bowel movement form for abnormalities that may suggest diarrhea or blood, and observe the size of the urinations for evidence of an increase or decrease in urine production. Also, look for any evidence of trauma.
  • A thorough medical history will include diet history and any recent diet changes, vaccine history (distemper, leukemia, and rabies), recent feline leukemia or feline aids testing, recent toxins you cat may have been exposed to, history of trauma, medication list, surgical history, compulsive behaviors, lumps or tumors, or the ingestion of an object, such as a penny or lead paint. Trauma can cause damage to the brain or spinal cord leading to abnormal symptoms or behaviors.
  • Once you make an appointment at your veterinarian, the first step is a thorough physical examination. Your vet will likely evaluate all body systems with a focus on the brain and nervous system. On the surface, your cat may look normal, but a detailed examination can reveal subtle differences. A temperature, pulse (heart rate), and respiratory rate will be done to look for any signs of a fever, abnormal high or low heart rates, or other irregularities. They will likely also do an oral exam by looking in the mouth for painful teeth, signs of infection, or other aberrations. The examination may include using an ophthalmoscope to look at the optic nerve, blood vessels, and the retina of the eye. Your vet will feel the abdomen for evidence of pain or an abnormal size or texture to the organs. They may also do a rectal exam that consists of gently inserting a gloved finger into the rectum to evaluate for masses or evidence of diarrhea. As they evaluate the nervous system, they will assess the overall attitude, appropriateness, alertness, pupil size and responsiveness to light, eye reflexes, such as the ability to blink, head and neck movements, coordination, body posture, gait, reflexes, and any evidence of seizure behavior. Examples of abnormal findings include absent or delayed reflexes, an abnormal gait, and/or observation of inappropriate behaviors.
  • Any abnormality above may be cause for concern leading to the recommendation for various diagnostic tests that may include:
    • Basic blood work and urinalysis, which are recommended for animals with abnormal neurologic signs and to evaluate for systemic diseases. Tests may include a complete blood count (CBC) that can be within normal limits or an elevated white blood cell count, which can determine the presence of an infectious disease. A low red blood cell result can diagnose anemia. High red blood cell counts may suggest dehydration. A biochemical profile may be unremarkable unless an underlying or concurrent disease is present. The profile can help lead to the diagnosis of metabolic abnormalities, diabetes mellitus, acute and chronic kidney failure, liver disorders, and electrolyte abnormalities. The urinalysis can suggest signs of infection, kidney failure, dehydration, or diabetes.
    • A thyroid blood test, which is recommended for older cats.. A high result can lead to a diagnosis of hyperthyroidism.
    • Testing for lead or zinc poisoning, which can cause abnormal behavior in some cats. Lead poisoning can occur from lead based paint chips ingested while grooming. Cats can also eat lead pellets, sinkers, or automotive, plumbing, roofing, and construction materials. Blood or fecal concentrations of lead can diagnose lead poisoning. Zinc can be toxic, but is a fairly uncommon condition in cats. Zinc toxicity can be caused by the ingestion of zinc-containing foreign bodies, such as pennies minted after 1982. Zinc toxicity can be diagnosed by elevated blood levels.
    • A fecal examination, which can diagnose the presence of parasites, infectious diseases, or show evidence of abnormal bleeding.
    • Radiographs (X-rays) of the chest and abdomen. These are an important part of any baseline work-up. They may be within normal limits or can reveal signs of cancer or concurrent disease.
    • Abdominal ultrasound. This is an imaging technique that allows visualization of cat’s abdominal structures by recording reflections of inaudible sound waves. This can assess the size and shape of organs such as the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, kidneys, bladder, and lymph nodes. Not all veterinary clinics offer ultrasound, therefore you may be referred to a specialty vet hospital.
    • Computed tomography (CT scan or CAT scan), which is a special X-ray technique that provides serial images of the brain and nervous system using enhanced computer processing.
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI is a diagnostic test that uses powerful magnetic fields to generate detailed images of organs. It is an excellent way to determine the underlying cause for head pressing.
    • A cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tap, which is a procedure that provides a sample of the fluid found in the subarachnoid space surrounding the brain and spinal cord. The subarachnoid space is the area between the tough outermost membrane layer (called the dura mater) and the softer innermost layer (the pia mater) that covers the brain and spinal column. This test can help diagnose diseases such as encephalitis, sacral caudal dysgenesis (malformation of the vertebrae of the lower back and tail), infectious meningitis (inflammation of the meninges of the brain or spinal cord from an infection), and spinal tumors that can occur in the vertebrae, the meninges, nerve roots, and/or the spinal cord itself. One type of feline cancer that can affect the neurological system is lymphosarcoma. The most common causes of meningitis in cats are bacterial infections, feline infectious peritonitis infection, and systemic fungal infections.

If your kitty is showing abnormal neurological signs in addition to head pressing while sleeping, your vet may refer you to a veterinary neurologist for a second opinion and additional advanced diagnostics, such as a CT scan or MRI. You vet may also have the option to call the veterinary neurologist for advice.

Treatment of Head Pressing in Cats

The treatment for head pressing will depend on the underlying cause and specific condition or conditions present. For example, an infectious condition may be treated with antibiotics, a metabolic condition, such as diabetes, will be treated with insulin therapy, and a trauma-related issue will be treated with medications to reduce brain swelling. Depending on the underlying problem, it can take days or weeks to recover from some conditions.

We hope this article helps you understand more about normal and abnormal reasons that lead to cat head pressing. Often, cats may curl up and press their head against something as a normal part of their behavior and even as a way to show affection. At other times, the reason may be due to a significant underlying disorder.

It is important to prevent problems that can result in head trauma and brain damage in pets. Indoor cats are less likely to obtain trauma from gunshot wounds, be hit by cars, or involved in an animal attack. A quality cat-food diet, playtime, and environmental enrichment with scratching posts are all critical to good animal health. Only select flea products recommended by your vet and made for cats. NEVER use dog flea products on your cat without your vets approval. Treat your cat only with medications recommended by your veterinarian.