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If someone asked you to describe what a headache feels like, you might use words such as “pressure,” “throbbing,” or “a dull ache.” Now, imagine what it’s like for your dog who can’t tell you where it hurts and how long they’ve been having symptoms. Veterinarians agree that it’s possible for dogs to get headaches but still, they’re hard to diagnose.

“Just like we cannot see or feel when another person has a headache, we cannot see or palpate or tell with certainty that a dog is experiencing a headache,” says Dr. Jerry Klein, DVM, Chief Veterinarian for the American Kennel Club. The best we can do is use external signs and changes in a dog’s behavior to determine whether they have a headache.

Signs of Headaches in Dogs

“Dogs get most of the same health issues humans get, but not all,” Dr. Klein explains. For example, dogs can experience heart failure, but they don’t appear to get heart attacks in the same way people do.

Australian Cattle Dog having its eyes checked by the vet.
©highwaystarz -

The question of whether dogs get headaches is challenging to answer. For one, the signs of headaches in dogs tend to overlap with many other health conditions that dogs experience, such as:

  • Lethargy
  • Pain or sensitivity when the head or neck is touched
  • Reluctance to move or play
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to bright light
  • Pressing their head
  • Shivering in fear

Considering that these are general signs, it’s not possible to conclude whether your dog has a headache based on these symptoms alone. If you observe any of these signs or notice changes in your dog’s behavior, it’s important to consult with your veterinarian. “Only a veterinarian can properly diagnose a dog’s health condition,” Dr. Klein says.

An additional challenge is that research on headaches in dogs is limited. Among the few available studies is a 2013 review that reported evidence of migraine-like episodic pain behavior in dogs. According to the study, the owner would observe the dog becoming quiet, fearful, and reluctant to interact with anyone. Following this period, the dog would exhibit signs indicative of pain and discomfort such as vocalizing, displaying a low head carriage, and refusing to eat or drink. The dog would remain quiet for a couple of days before returning to their normal baseline condition.

These migraine-like episodes would occur at any time. There were no obvious events or environmental factors that preceded the onset of symptoms. Even so, dogs may be sensitive to things that commonly trigger migraines in people, such as loud sounds, bright lights, and strong odors. In any case, the fact that dogs are nonverbal makes it difficult to diagnose migraine and headache disorders in dogs. Another issue is the lack of specific biological tests for these conditions. This also presents a problem even with people who can verbalize their symptoms.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lying on a yellow couch under a brown blanket.
©Lili -

What Causes Headaches in Dogs?

Given the challenges of conducting research with dogs, “We can try to extrapolate possible causes of headaches in dogs from known causes of headaches in humans,” Dr. Klein says. To start, let’s talk about how and why people develop headaches.

There are two types of headaches in people: primary and secondary headaches. Overactivity or problems with the blood vessels and nerves in the head can cause primary headaches. One source of pain could be the constriction or swelling of blood vessels. Examples of primary headaches in humans include:

  • Cluster headaches
  • Tension headaches
  • Migraine headaches
  • Chronic daily headaches
  • Headaches secondary to certain foods or alcohol

Secondary headaches “are symptoms of an underlying disease that activate the pain centers of the head,” Dr. Klein says. Examples in humans include:

  • Headaches secondary to ear, dental or sinus infection
  • Hypertension
  • Glaucoma
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Inflammatory conditions of the brain
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Head trauma
  • Blood clots or aneurysms in the brain
  • Strokes
  • Brain tumors

In the case of dogs, dental disease, sinus infection, and ear infection can cause sensitivity or pain in the head. The occurrence of conditions like encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in both people and dogs, as well as dogs’ responsiveness to medications commonly used to treat headaches in people, lend support to the belief that dogs can experience headaches. In the absence of conclusive evidence, veterinarians must rely on a combination of clinical observations and research on human models of disease to diagnose the problem and make appropriate treatment recommendations.

“Diagnostics and imaging can aid in diagnosing medical conditions, such as meningitis and brain tumors, which are known to cause headaches in people,” Dr. Klein says. However, an MRI wouldn’t necessarily show abnormalities if your dog is experiencing a routine headache. Instead, a veterinarian might look for other signs of pain like increased heart rate or discomfort when palpating the head.

Golden Retriever puppy laying indoors on a wood floor.
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Preventing and Relieving Headaches in Dogs

“It’s important that you never medicate your dog assuming that he or she has a headache,” Dr. Klein emphasizes. “Non-steroidal medications such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen are toxic to dogs and can cause serious medical issues.” Acetaminophen should never be given without a veterinarian’s prior recommendation, as other drugs are safer and more effective. Therefore, he recommends getting your dog regular veterinary check-ups where ear, dental, and other health issues can be detected early and treated properly.

Keeping your dog at a healthy weight can help with managing symptoms that accompany headaches. During the warmer months, make sure your dog doesn’t overheat to avoid heat stroke. Always keep fresh water on hand to prevent dehydration.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to check your dog’s collar and harness to make sure they fit properly. You want to avoid putting pressure on your dog’s neck and spine, especially with growing puppies, older dogs, or dogs that have gained weight. Since dogs tend to put on a brave face, it’s important to be alert to signs of pain and get them veterinary care as soon as possible.

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.

Related article: Can Dogs Get Seasonal Affective Disorder?
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