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Do dogs get headaches?

Jack Russell dog with a cool bag on its head advice

Have you ever wondered if dogs could get headaches?

© Shutterstock

Clearly dogs are not able to tell us when they feel unwell, at least not verbally. That leads us to difficulty, especially when it comes to illnesses that could be life threatening. Here we pose the question: does my dog have a headache?

By Nick Whittle

What signs of head pain should we look for of a dog, and what may a dog’s headache tell us about its general health?

Using veterinarian advice and guidance we will look at how best to diagnose a canine headache, what pain may mean in terms of the dog’s general health, and what we can do to ease the dog’s pain.

A human patient may complain about their sore head and in doing so demand that something is done about it. A dog may not be able to complain in the same way, but it can communicate suffering and pain in other more subtle ways. Learn how best to tell whether a dog has a headache and what you as its owner can do about it.

Dog with a cold bag on its head
Do dogs get headaches like humans? ©Shutterstock

Do dogs get headaches and migraines?

Diagnosing a dog with a headache is not always a straightforward case. MRI scans and blood tests will not reveal such a pain. Nevertheless, vets see no reason for a dog not to feel pain in its head, especially if it is suffering with the same condition that would give us a headache.

Conditions associated with our headaches – diseases, viral infections, joint pain – are as commonplace of dogs as they are of humans. A vet may opine that a dog is in pain if the animal has a high heart rate and is exhibiting odd behaviour; if the dog does not have obvious signs of body pain that could point to it having a headache.

Dog migraine

In 2013 scientists from the Royal Veterinarian College in the UK published a study of the likelihood of the existence of dog migraine. One case highlighted in the report was of a 5‐year‐old female neutered Cocker Spaniel.

Writes the lead researcher: “One day to 2 hours before the onset of vocalization, the dog would appear fearful and quiet, and would hide under furniture, avoiding any interaction at home. After this initial period, the dog would start vocalizing, as if she was experiencing pain, and would have a low head carriage.”

The periods of nausea and pain experienced by the dog often lasted up to three days. This, in combination with the dog’s behaviour, led the research team to conclude that the dog exhibited all of the signs of a migraine.

What causes a dog’s headache?

Logically, a dog’s headache will be caused by the same physiological conditions that cause our own. Some dogs may suffer with encephalitis (especially Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas and Pugs); some may suffer with a brain tumour or head trauma; some may have tooth decay or a sinus infection. All of these types of illness will cause a dog to feel pain in its head.

Find out more about dog breeds ?

How to tell your pet has a headache?

A dog will very rarely “tell” you it is in pain. Part of the legacy of its wolf heritage is its unwillingness to exhibit weakness of any kind. Since, in the wild, a wolf that reveals weakness or illness would be left out of the pack or, worst of all, turned on by the pack and killed.

Thus, as its owner, you have to be vigilant of your dog’s behaviour and use your uniquely human detective skills to identify a problem when it arises. If you notice any of the behaviours we have listed below should lead you to suspect your dog has a headache.

Importantly, if you think your dog has a headache you should NOT administer human pain killers. Your best course of action would be to take the dog to the vet as soon as possible.

  • Blank staring
  • Dull expression, lowered head
  • Head pressing
  • Head shaking
  • Pacing and aggression
  • Squinting eyes or lots of blinking

Dr Valeri Farmer-Dougan of Illinois State University outlines suspicious behaviour to Gizmodo: “Dogs may be much less active, and be light-sensitive (refusing to go outside on a sunny day, for example). They may not want to eat as much, and even avoid treats. They might rub their head or hold their head against the wall, furniture, or even you. They may rub their eyes. Dogs can get pain from toothaches, eye dysfunctions, allergies, head injuries — many of the same things that cause humans to have headaches.”

Dog cuddling toy
Cuddle teddy when you are poorly ©Shutterstock

If your dog is showing symptoms of a headache or any other type of pain you should arrange an appointment with your local vet. Your vet will investigate the causes of the pain. We have already looked at some of the illnesses that can cause a headache but underlying causes are varied and may include head trauma, tick-borne illnesses, joint conditions, hormonal imbalance and toxicosis.

Once the cause is identified treatment can begin, but treatment may not include a course of pain killers for the headache. A vet will want to treat the source of the headache first, and that may lead to their administering a different type of drug or therapy.