PET TIPS: Of mutts and migraines

The headline, posted on the Gizmodo website, immediately caught my attention, asking a question that had never occurred to me:

“Do dogs get headaches?”

In all my observations of dogs, I never thought about this, because I assumed that headaches were an exclusively human phenomenon.

But that’s a ridiculous assumption. Any living creature can experience pain in any part of their body that has nerve endings, so it’s certainly possible for a dog to feel pain in the head.

I guess the question is, When a dog has a headache, does it feel similar to what we humans feel? Because a headache isn’t simply the sensation of pain; it can accompany other symptoms such as pressure, nausea, sensitivity to light, and cognitive issues, such as inability to concentrate.

But dogs don’t “think” in the same manner that we do – so how would their experience of a headache compare to ours?

The Gizmodo article put this question to a number of distinguished veterinarians. The doctors agree that there is at least one easily proved (via MRI) cause of severe headache in both humans and animals, and that’s a brain tumor.

“Dogs with brain tumors tend to push their head against walls and furniture as if their head hurts, and anti-inflammatory drugs improve this ‘head pressing,’” said Dr. Charles Vite, a veterinary neurologist in Pennsylvania.

But brain tumors are rare. What about the more common, benign causes of headaches? Vite says many of the typical reasons for headaches in humans – such as job stress or a hangover – are unique to people and don’t apply to animals.

But Dr. Valeri Farmer-Dougan, director of the canine behavior lab at Illinois State University, says dogs aren’t as different from us as you might think.

“Dogs get headaches, just like any mammal,” she said. “They get pain from toothaches, eye dysfunctions, allergies, head injuries.”

How do you know if your dog is suffering from a headache?

“Dogs may be much less active, and be light-sensitive – refusing to go outside on a sunny day, for example,” said Farmer-Dougan. “They may not want to eat as much, or even avoid treats. They may rub their head or hold their head against the wall, furniture, or even you. They may rub their eyes.”

What can you do to give your dog some relief? Treat the underlying cause of the headache, if you know what it is. Also, it is safe to give your dog a baby aspirin to control pain.

But if these measures don’t help and he seems to be in obvious distress, get him to the vet. You know what’s it’s like to have that throbbing in your cranium, and you certainly wouldn’t wish that on your canine friend.

Debbie Gilbert has been handling dogs for 50 years and won numerous AKC obedience competitions with her late Sheltie, Sunny. She lives with her current Sheltie, Daisy. E-mail your Pet Tips questions to                                                                                                                     

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