Almost every other person experiences a throbbing or splitting headache at some point in their lives. Whenever we get headaches, we always pop a pill or seek an appointment with our doctor. This way we will have a better understanding of what is causing the headache and how best to manage it. Unfortunately, our beloved pets cannot tell us whether they are having a headache or not. They are not gifted with the faculty of comprehensible speech such that we can be certain it’s headache they’re having and not something else. Without this “communication”, we can never be too sure that dogs can get headaches.
Pain as a Subjective Experience
We always hear people say that pain is what an individual says it is. No one can ever argue that something is painful since the phenomenon is very subjective. It is true that there are pain rating scales with which we can use to “grade” or “rate” the severity of our pain. But these are also subjective in a way.
Because pain – like headaches – is a subjective experience, there is no way we can ever be certain that a dog will also have it.
Of course, we know that dogs can get hurt. They let out a cry if you hit them hard. As such, the blow must be very painful. But when we think about headaches, we’re talking about a phenomenon that is not triggered by conventional means like getting hit in the head.
We are talking about an experience that only the one experiencing it can provide a rough estimate of its severity. And since the “one” experiencing the pain here is a dog, it will be quite difficult to determine with utmost certainty that they are having a headache.
Certain Health Conditions Can Produce Headaches in Dogs
While it is true that we can never prove that dogs can get headaches, our knowledge of disease processes can help us gain a better understanding of the possible existence of canine headaches. The following are some of the health conditions that can produce headaches in dogs.
In this health condition, the tissues of the brain become inflamed. Whenever there is inflammation, one can expect swelling. This can result in an increase in pressure within the different structures of the swollen area. However, the brain can no longer expand to accommodate the swelling because of the rigidity of the skull. Hence, an increase in the pressure inside the brain and the skull can compress the different tissues. This can lead to headaches.
- Granulomatous Meningoencephalitis
This is an autoimmune disease that affects both the tissues and the protective covering of the brain. The resulting inflammation leads to the formation of granulomas. These can wrap the blood vessels of the white matter of the central nervous system. It can also lead to intense headaches as well as problems with vision.
- Brain Tumors
As expected, any mass that grows within the brain can compress the brain tissues, blood vessels, and other structures. The compression of these structures by the growing brain tumor irritates the nerve pathways that mediate pain. Moreover, the pressure inside the skull also increases that pain is a natural outcome.
In glaucoma, the problem is not in the brain itself, but the pressure inside the eyes. Since the location of the eyes is strategic relative to the brain, increased intraocular pressure can also lead to intense headaches.
Most of us know about health condition as tremors or seizures. But these are mere manifestations of the disease known as epilepsy. The problem here is that there is an unusual firing of the nerves in the brain. Whenever this occurs, the blood supply to the brain gets cut off. The brain tissues can starve of oxygen and other substances. This can result in compensatory mechanisms that produce headaches in dogs.
- Sinus and Inner Ear Infections
Both the sinus cavity and the ear canals have connections to the brain. These are very small passageways. When there is an infection in these structures, inflammation can result. Whenever there’s inflammation, one can always expect swelling and pain to be present.
You may not believe it, but there are a few studies that show dogs can have migraine headaches, too. Dogs with migraine have been shown to exhibit increased vocalizations, hypersalivation, increased sensitivity to sound, and increased hiding tendencies.
- Other Health Conditions
There are other disease processes that have the potential to give dogs a headache. These include high blood pressure, dental problems, head or neck trauma, and stress, among others. Allergies can also produce headaches in dogs, although no one can be certain.
Is It Possible to Know If Your Pet Dog Has a Headache?
You can’t. It is possible to observe a number of canine behaviors or symptoms. However, because of the subjective nature of pain (headache), our dogs can never tell us with absolute certainty that they are indeed in pain. For instance, one of the possible manifestations of migraine headaches in dogs is increased vocalization. But then there are other reasons why the dog may increase the frequency and intensity of its vocalizations. It may have pain in its limbs but not in the head.
Regardless, there are some symptoms that can help you determine whether your pet is having a headache. Keep in mind that these manifestations are inconclusive. They can mean other things.
- Hypersensitivity to sound; may stay in a room where it’s quieter
- Hypersensitivity to light; may prefer hiding in dark places; and avoids going outside
- Tearing, together with increased vocalization
- Hides or prefers to be alone
- Hyper-reactive to touch or may withdraw from it
- Loss of control of body movements
- Increased or unusual panting
- Hitting an object the dog doesn’t normally hit
- Changes in behavior or temperament such as aggression in a well-behaved dog or increased attention-seeking behavior from a dog not known for doing such things
- Refuses to eat
- Loss of appetite
- Redness of the eyes
- Furrowed brows
- Nasal discharge or nasal congestion
- Trembling or visible tremors
- Dull or blank expression
- Frequent blinking
- Worried look even though there is no reason to worry at all
- Inconsistency in the performance of everyday tasks and routines
How a Veterinarian Can Help
It is clear that assessing for the presence of the symptoms and manifestations we presented above is not enough to warrant a diagnosis of headaches in dogs. These manifestations can point to other possible causes. For instance, there are many reasons why a dog may prefer to be alone. It could be that it is frightened or very anxious.
Since pet owners do not have the clinical expertise to diagnose headaches in dogs, it’s best to ask a vet to help.
The main issue here is the nature of headaches. They tend to appear very fast and resolve as fast, too. As such, if you are entertaining the idea of getting the opinion of your vet, it may not work at all. Why? By the time you bring your dog to the vet, the different “headache manifestations” you have observed at home may no longer be present.
However, if you think your pet’s headache is something that occurs very often, then the vet can help. This is also true for chronic headaches in dogs.
Most veterinarians will only conduct a physical examination to determine whether your dog has a headache or not. As we already know, this is not conclusive. A more definitive approach is to subject the pet to a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan. This will help provide a more detailed picture of the dog’s brain. Vets can check if there are masses or signs of inflammation that can bring about pain in the head.
Some vets may also assess the dog’s allergy status. You have to understand that one of the most common culprits of canine headaches is allergies.
Caring for a Dog with Headaches
The management of canine headache depends on the cause and the main symptom that you observe. For example, if the dog is sensitive to light or sound, then it is imperative that you provide your dog with a quiet, dark, and cool place to rest. If it is reactive to touch, then instruct everyone in the household to avoid petting the dog. Give your pet dog both the time and space to manage its headache. Keep all distractions away from your dog.
If your vet is able to pinpoint the cause of the headache, then he will also offer you a treatment plan. In most instances, this will include the administration of canine medications. It is important that you adhere to the recommended dosage and schedule of this treatment. Hot or cold compresses can also help soothe headaches.
It is true that we can never prove that dogs can get headaches. However, we can use our knowledge of disease processes to link with the manifestations or behaviors that our dog is giving us. This should help us gain a better understanding of how headaches in dogs work and how we can help our pets manage such a condition.