A dog may sometimes bump his head on a coffee table producing quite an alarming sound that may concern the dog owner, but then the dog shakes his head once or twice and is back to normal romping around as if nothing ever happened. Sigh of relief for the dog owner…. “phewww.” At one point though one may wonder: can dogs get a concussion like humans do when they hit their heads? If so, what would be the signs of a concussion in dogs and what can be done about it? Today, we will be discovering more about concussions in dogs and what veterinarians say about them.
Head Concussions in Dogs
The term concussion comes from the Latin word “concutere” which means to “shake violently.” Also known as brain injury, head injury or head trauma, dogs are also susceptible to head concussions just as humans are. Fortunately though dogs tend to have quite a thick skull that makes them less likely to suffer from major damage when hitting their head against a table or chair, explains veterinarian Dr. Fiona.
In a normal, healthy dog, the brain is protected by a think skull and is surrounded by cerebrospinal fluid which is meant to further protect the brain from light trauma.
In severe impacts though, the cushioning effect may not suffix to protect the brain and the brain may suffer from swelling or hemorrhage which can lead to significant problems.
Common causes of serious head traumas in dogs are being kicked by horses, falling, being hit by a car or a blow to the head such as from a baseball bat.
“In my 16 yrs of practice, I have never met even one dog or cat who did serious damage to themselves by hitting a table of chair or other object. Fortunately, the skull is very strong, and the worst I have ever seen has been a tender bump for 1 – 2 days.” Dr. Fiona
Symptoms of Severe Head Trauma
A severe blow to the head, can alter the brain’s physiology leading to several complications under the form of metabolic changes including abnormal glucose levels, electrolyte imbalances and acid-base disturbances which can last even up to several weeks. Fortunately, these effects are often reversible, but according to studies performed on animals, a large numbers of neurons may sustain tissue damage and die.
Following a serious concussion, a dog may therefore develop a variety of symptoms such as altered state of consciousness, pupils of unequal sizes, stiff or flaccid legs, staggering gait, abnormal eye movements, tilted head, blood loss from ear canal or from the nose and breathing changes. Sometimes dogs may also develop vomiting following a blow to the head. According to a study, it was found that dogs who sustained a head trauma had a higher chance for developing seizures, especially in the immediate or early post-traumatic period.
In dogs, it is possible to have different levels of consciousness which can be classified into 4 distinct levels: 1) responsive, in other words, a bright and alert dog 2) depressed, in other words, a lethargic dog, but still responsive when stimulated 3) semi-comatose, in other words a significantly depressed dog, up to a point where vigorous stimulation is required to get a response 4) comatose, in other words, an unconscious dog who doesn’t respond to stimulation, no matter how vigorous.
“You’d be surprised how much force it takes to really cause head trauma in a dog. Just hitting her head on a coffee table may cause a bit of a bump and some pain but I would not worry about any brain trauma. Worst case scenario that there is head trauma, these are the signs you’d look for- different size pupils, difficulty walking, muscle tremors, seizures. If you notice any of those, then she should be seen right away.” ~Dr. Gary
While with minor bumps one can monitor the dog and report to the vet if noticing signs of trouble, when a severe concussion is suspected, it’s important to seek the vet as soon as possible as brain swelling can occur even hours after the accident. Best to play is safe and see the vet if in any doubt. Because dogs don’t share the same brain functions as humans, (eg fine motor movements, speech) it can be challenging at times to determine whether the dog’s brain has been affected. However, vets can derive hints from potential damage by looking at the dog’s balance, gait, eyes and overall level of alertness.
The vet will therefore carefully examine the dog by checking the dog’s pupil response to light (pupils should change size) and by performing a neurological evaluation. X-rays or a CT scan can be helpful to assess whether there are any fractures of the skull or spinal cord and signs or presence of brain injury. If there are signs of problems, the vet may provide pain relievers, intravenous fluids and medications meant to reduce swelling of the brain (mannitol).
“Head injuries can worsen significantly over the first 24-48 hours after the accident as swelling and bleeding increase within the cranium.”~ Dr. Laura Devlin
Did you know? Traumatic brain injury is quite common in cats, but in dogs not so much and this is because of the dog’s heavy temporal musculature and thick skull, explains veterinarian Michael Schaer, in the book “Clinical Medicine of the Dog and Cat, Second Edition.”
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If you suspect your dog has a concussion or some other type of head trauma, please see your vet immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment.
- Friedenberg SG, Butler AL, Wei L, et al. Seizures following head trauma in dogs: 259 cases (1999-2009). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2012;241(11):1479-1483.
- Clinical Medicine of the Dog and Cat, Second Edition 2nd Edition, by
- Pet Place, Head Trauma in Dogs, retrieved from the web on August 4th, 2016
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