Think Your Dog Has a Migraine?

Cocker Spaniel With Migraine Headache

Story at-a-glance -

  • We know humans get migraine headaches – because they tell us about their pain. But do our pets also suffer from this miserable, debilitating disorder?
  • Two veterinarians at the Royal Veterinary College in England reported a case of a 5-year-old female Cocker Spaniel who seemed to be suffering many of the same symptoms humans with migraines experience. The dog’s condition had grown progressively worse until she was having monthly episodes, and her owner’s were considering euthanasia.
  • The veterinarians treated the dog first with an anti-seizure drug (phenobarbital), then with a second anti-seizure drug plus acetaminophen, and finally with the anti-convulsant topiramate – a very powerful medication with a vast number of reported adverse side effects.
  • The dog’s symptoms significantly improved with the topiramate, which was given as needed at the first sign of an impending episode. However, it is disturbing to contemplate that no safer, natural remedies were attempted first, before resorting to the use of powerful anti-seizure and anti-convulsant medications.
  • A more conservative but ultimately safer approach would involve additional testing to uncover possible obscure causes of the migraine episodes, a review of the dog’s diet and other potential lifestyle-related triggers, and the use of natural therapies including acupuncture and chiropractic to hopefully reduce the severity and frequency of episodes.

By Dr. Becker

Migraine headaches in humans can be tremendously painful and debilitating. They are defined as recurrent throbbing headaches that usually affect one side of the head and can be accompanied by nausea, visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Migraines can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and the cause is as yet undetermined. Researchers do know that changes occur in blood vessels in the brain of migraine sufferers, but they don't know whether the changes are a cause or a result of the condition. It is suspected there is a hereditary component to the disorder.

Since there is no test to "prove" a migraine is occurring, when humans get them, they communicate their discomfort verbally in order to get help. Our pets don't have the same ability to tell us when or where they hurt, so how do we know they don't suffer from migraines, too?

Veterinarians Report a Cocker Spaniel with Possible Migraine Headaches

In an article published last year in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine,1 veterinarians at the Royal Veterinary College in England reported on a possible case of migraine headache in a dog.

The patient was a 5-year-old spayed female Cocker Spaniel who was brought to the college's teaching hospital because she was experiencing episodes of vocalization and fear-based behavior that ran from 2 to 4 hours and for up to 3 days. The dog was also drooling excessively, and her fear caused her to try to hide and perform other avoidance behaviors.

According to the dog's owners, the episodes had started when she was 5 months old and happened about twice a year. By the time she was admitted to the Royal Veterinary College teaching hospital, they were occurring monthly and the owners were sadly considering euthanasia.

The Cocker Spaniel's physical exam and all laboratory tests (blood, urine, etc.) were normal, as was an MRI of her head and analysis of her neck and spinal fluid. The veterinarians treating the dog ultimately arrived at a probable diagnosis of some type of seizure disorder, and she was started on phenobarbital, which is a barbiturate used to control epileptic seizures in humans.

Cocker Spaniel Is Successfully Treated with a Powerful Anti-Convulsant Drug

Before long, the dog was back at the hospital with another episode in which she vocalized, seemed to be in pain, and also had light and sound sensitivity. This time she was given a different anti-seizure drug and acetaminophen (the drug in Tylenol), but those medications also failed.

Her veterinarians began to suspect a possible migraine-type disorder, and so they put her on the anti-convulsant drug topiramate, which is given to some human migraine patients.

While on the topiramate, the dog's episodes were shorter in duration. The dosage was adjusted and her vocalizations stopped. Her owners also reported she was eager to exercise and showed no light or sound sensitivity. The owners learned to quickly recognize an approaching episode and gave the dog the anti-convulsant only as needed. After a year and a half, the frequency of episodes was down to every 2 to 3 months and the owners were able to control them by giving the drug at the onset of an episode. They felt their dog had regained a good quality of life.

Unfortunately, the Anti-Convulsant the Dog Was Given Has Over 250 Reported Adverse Effects

Since there are no definitive tests for diagnosing migraines, even in humans, it's not possible to state unequivocally that the Cocker Spaniel has the condition. But the veterinarians treating her point to her migraine-like symptoms, as well as her response to a drug used to prevent and treat human migraines. They suggest that all veterinarians may need to consider the possibility of headaches in pets with symptoms similar to their Cocker Spaniel patient.

While I certainly see the value of studies on headaches in pets, as a holistic wellness practitioner, I'm troubled by the immediate use of very powerful drugs absent a definitive diagnosis, and without trying other, safer remedies first.

The Cocker Spaniel was given phenobarbital, followed by another anti-seizure drug plus acetaminophen, followed by the anti-convulsant drug topiramate. All these drugs have significant side effects. In humans, topiramate alone has 9 reported "very common" adverse effects, over 70 "common" adverse effects, 140 "uncommon" adverse effects, and another 40 "rare" adverse effects.2

Here's the Approach I Would Take with a Dog with Possible Migraine Headaches

While I understand the panic the dog's owners were feeling watching their pet suffer, my approach would be to first do a very thorough workup, beyond the usual blood and urine tests. I would investigate for possible head trauma, brain tumor, infection (including tick-borne diseases), immune-mediated disease, cervical subluxation, congenital malformation, metabolic disorders (undiagnosed thyroid and adrenal diseases in particular), and exposure to toxins/poisoning (thorough evaluation of air and water quality, in addition to looking at indoor and outdoor toxins around the home and chemicals prescribed by attending vets).

I would also evaluate the dog's diet and lifestyle for potential triggers, including over-vaccination. Instead of anti-seizure drugs, I would first switch the dog to a diet containing no GMOs, no carbs, moderate amounts of fat, and high levels of excellent-quality protein. This is a ketagenic diet used with some success in treating humans with seizure disorders, and it also happens to be species-appropriate nutrition for dogs and cats. I have treated several patients I believe were dealing with migraines successfully by simply removing environmental triggers. Addressing stress in the animal's life is also important.

If the dog seemed to be carrying a heavy toxin load, I would institute a detoxification protocol. I would attempt to manage any pain she was experiencing with curcumoids (the active ingredient found in turmeric).

I would also consider the use of any number of natural substances and therapies that can reduce the potential for epileptic-type episodes and which have helped humans manage headaches naturally. I would begin acupuncture and chiropractic treatments immediately. Additionally, I have used cannabis extracts (cannabinoids that don't have psychogenic affects in animals), the essential oils of lavender, basil and peppermint, the herbs feverfew, ginkgo biloba and butterbur, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and ubiquinol.

My approach is always to test for a wide range of potential causes and triggers when presented with an unusual case like the Cocker Spaniel, and to begin treatment with safe, non-toxic, natural therapies first rather than resorting to the use of powerful, potentially harmful pharmaceuticals. Oftentimes, exploring natural alternatives first can eliminate the need for drugs or can minimize the number of drugs and the dose needed to effectively manage the condition.

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