According to the Cleveland Clinic, 75 percent of adult humans experience a headache every year. While there are sometimes measurable changes in the body associated with a headache, it is most often a subjective feeling that comes along with other symptoms of not feeling well such as irritability or tiredness.
But do dogs get headaches, too? The truth is, it can be very difficult to determine whether a dog is experiencing a headache and if so, whether they are experiencing it in the same way a human does.
Do Dogs Get Headaches?
While there are few published studies about headaches in dogs, veterinarians widely believe that dogs do in fact experience headaches.
In human medicine headaches are divided into two broad categories—primary and secondary. Primary headaches are those where the headache defines the condition such as migraines. Secondary headaches are due to some other problem such as dehydration or head trauma. It is these secondary headaches that are believed to be similar between people and dogs. Since all mammals share similar physiology it can be assumed that problems that cause headaches in people would likely cause headaches in dogs.
The evidence of a shared headache experience comes from the way dogs behave when they are ill or in pain. Both humans and dogs who are dehydrated are lethargic, their eyes are glassy and eyelids not fully open, and they just want to lay in a quiet dark place and rest.
Can Dogs Get Migraines?
As to whether dogs can suffer from primary headaches such as migraines, there is less of a consensus. There is a single published case report of a dog with “migraine-like episodic pain” who responded well to medications used to treat migraines in humans.
It is possible that other dogs have experienced similar symptoms but were either untreated or unreported. However, before concluding that a dog experiences migraine-like episodes, all other possible causes of neurologic abnormalities need to be ruled out such as brain tumors, seizures, and congenital defects. Interestingly, some dogs can be trained to detect an impending migraine in their human companions.
Causes of Headaches in Dogs
Causes of secondary headaches in dogs are similar to those described in humans. These include:
- Sinus infection
- Ear infection
- Tooth pain or infection
- Head trauma
- Brain tumors
- High blood pressure
- Second hand smoke
Dehydration in dogs can be caused by many things such as diarrhea, vomiting, not eating and drinking, intense exercise, or heat exposure. As far as medications, every animal can respond to medication differently so it is important to monitor your dog for symptoms of headaches after starting or stopping a medication.
In humans some types of severe head trauma can cause chronic headaches. It is not known whether the same is true for dogs. Dogs have a much thicker skull with more muscle surrounding it, so a dog’s brain may not be as vulnerable to chronic injury from trauma.
Some congenital abnormalities may cause chronic or recurrent headaches in dogs including abnormalities within the brain, blood vessels, nerves, and spine.
Symptoms of Headaches in Dogs
Dogs and humans share many of the same signs of a headache. However, these symptoms are vague and not specific to just a headache. Most of the symptoms of a headache alert you that your dog is not feeling well without specifically diagnosing a headache.
Symptoms of headaches in dogs may include:
- Seeking out dark places
- Seeking out quiet places
- Seeking out cold places
- Not wanting to interact (not wanting to play or be pet)
- Sleeping more than usual
- Decreased appetite
- Head kept low to the ground
- Glassy eyes, eyelids not fully open
- Weakness or walking with difficulty
- Head tilt or walking in circles
Occasionally dogs may become irritable or aggressive due to a headache. However, more often dogs experience headaches as one of many signs of illness and they are more likely to hide than to bite.
What to Do if Your Dog Has a Headache
If you suspect your dog has a headache the first thing to consider is whether she has recently experienced any of the causes of secondary headaches such as diarrhea, trauma, or allergies. If she has, then make an appointment with your veterinarian to have the primary problem addressed as soon as possible.
In the meantime, make sure your dog is drinking plenty of water. Some dogs will drink more water if there are ice cubes in it while others would prefer diluted no-salt broth added to their water bowl. It is important that the broth be no-salt or very low in salt because salt contributes to dehydration which in turn worsens a headache.
NEVER give your dog human headache medication. Many of the over-the-counter medicines used to treat human headaches are toxic to dogs. If you have any dog-specific medications at home, you can ask your veterinarian whether it is appropriate to give them when you call to make an appointment.
Allow your dog to rest in a cool, quiet, dark area where she is comfortable. Allow her to rest undisturbed. When you do check on her try to be quiet and move slowly so she is not startled.
If your dog’s signs of a headache last more than 24 hours or are accompanied by other signs of illness such as vomiting or inability to walk normally she should be seen by a veterinarian urgently. This could be a sign of a more serious illness.