If dogs get headaches, we would probably be more understanding of when dogs are acting grumpy or when they are not performing too well in dog sports or training. Until the day dogs can talk, we may never really know how they truly feel and what's going on their minds. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec discusses whether dogs can get headaches, the symptoms and and the underlying causes.
Yes, Dogs Can Get Headaches Too!
Bedridden, irritable, nauseous – this is how we feel when going through a headache episode, but what about our dogs? Are these symptoms present in dogs with headaches too? Can dogs even get headaches?
Well, the answer is yes. Just like humans, dogs can suffer from headaches. Although there are not many studies and scientific research backing up this statement, veterinary professionals agree that headaches are a possibility in the canine world.
The pathophysiology of the headache, or simply put, the concept, is the same in dogs as in humans. Basically, the brain is like a computer responsible for managing all of the body’s functions and processes. Serving as an informer of pain is one of its responsibilities.
Pain in the head occurs when the blood vessels, nerves, and muscles around the head and neck either constrict or swell. So this is the simple reason behind the headache’s complex manifestation. And this is the same for dogs and humans.
The Causes of Headaches in Dogs
Headaches in dogs can be triggered by many factors. Some are specific for canines while others are the same as in humans. Let's take a look at some potential causes of headaches in dogs.
Since dogs have superior olfactory receptors compared to humans, it is postulated that the primary cause of canine headaches is strong and irritating scents.
Cold or Flu
Just like humans, dogs suffer from the flu. The also experience the same accompanying signs and symptoms – runny nose, sneezing, overall debilitation, and of course, headaches.
Dogs and humans are similar in this department too. Just as in humans, a dog experiencing an allergic reaction will go through the annoying bout of runny nose and eyes, uncomfortable itching, sneezing, and occasional headache. Based on records, allergies are the most common cause of headaches in dogs.
Spending too much time in a heated environment is a common cause of headaches. Even if provided with a shaded space, dogs living outdoors are likely to feel overheated if the air is hot.
Being overly physically active can cause headaches because vigorous movement causes the head to move or shake vigorously. Therefore hyperactive dogs are at higher risk of experiencing a headache than mellow and even-tempered dogs.
Just like humans, dogs are likely to experience frequent bouts of headaches following a significant head trauma.
Stress and Anxiety
Loud noises, unusual experiences, exposure to new people or pets, dealing with separation – these are common causes of stress and anxiety in dogs. Stress and anxiety are often accompanied by headaches.
Bain tumors are really rare, but if present, headaches are one of their clinical manifestations. However, a dog with a brain tumor, in addition to headaches, will have several neurologic signs and symptoms.
Symptoms of Headaches in Dogs
Dogs do not display discomfort the same way we do. In fact, when dogs experience pain or discomfort, they tend to hide their symptoms. This is wired deeply into their genetic code, and it is a survival skill. Namely, in the wild, displaying pain and discomfort is a sign of weakness and vulnerability.
However, if observant enough, a dog parent can spot the behavioral changes that might indicate his/her dog has a headache. Those include:
- Light sensitivity and squinting in bright light
- Disinterest in food
- Disinterest in going out
- Disinterest in being physically active
- Anxiousness, constant pacing, excessive licking
- Keeping the head low to the ground
- Avoidance of being petted or event touched on the head and neck
- Frequent laying, napping and resting.
Diagnosing Headaches in Dogs
The process of diagnosing headaches in dogs is much more challenging than in humans. When humans experience headaches, doctors ask questions like “where is the pain derived from”, “how long does the painful episode last”, and “what is the specific sensation associated with the pain.” The fact that dogs cannot answer these questions is what makes the diagnosis complicated.
To diagnose headaches in dogs, vets must rely on their previous experience. Basically the vet will perform a full physical examination and pay special attention to some telltale signs like dilated pupils, excessive eye straining under light, straying away from approaching hands and objects, reluctance to being touched on and around the head.
If there are other accompanying symptoms, and the vet suspects the underlying cause is something serious, he/she might order an MRI.
Headache Treatment in Dogs
When a dog is experiencing a headache, the best you can do is provide supportive care – avoid agitating the pain and keeping the dog calm and comfortable. This is best achieved through:
- Providing a cool, dark and quiet environment in which the dog can rest and recover
- Preventing all forms of disturbance, caused by other pets, kids or people
- Applying hot or cold compresses on its head, neck or back
- Using a pain-killer (prescribed by a vet and given in accordance with the vet’s instructions).
These techniques are useful for managing ongoing headache episodes. However, in the long-run, it is advisable to get to the bottom of things, and determine the underlying cause.
The prognosis depends on the underlying cause. However, in most cases, the headache episode is likely to go away on its own in about 30 minutes to one hour. If during the episode, the dog is frequently disturbed or exposed to loud noises, strong scents, or bright lights, the episode can last more than an hour.
In the medical ailment department, dogs are pretty much like babies – they cannot express themselves, and much is left to free interpretation. However, just because dogs are hard to read, it does not mean they are fine. Just because they cannot express their ailment the same way does not mean they do not suffer from common conditions – like headaches.
If you suspect your dog has a headache, be understanding and give it some space. Hopefully, the headache will subside in an hour, and your dog will be back to its rambunctious and mischievous self.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.