10 Signs Your Dog May Have a Headache

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

do dogs get headaches

Story at-a-glance -

  • Biologically, dogs can develop many diseases and conditions that humans do, including those that cause headaches
  • While it may not be possible to prove that dogs get headaches, many indications suggest they do
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), brain tumors, sinus infections, glaucoma, epilepsy and swelling are all examples of conditions that occur in dogs that may cause headaches or headache-like pain
  • Symptoms of headaches in dogs may include squinting eyes, lowered or elevated head, head pressing or shaking, frequent blinking or an aversion to touch
  • There is at least one case report of a 5-year-old Cocker Spaniel with symptoms striking similar to migraines in humans
  • If your dog displays symptoms that make you suspect he has headache pain, take him to see an integrative or functional medicine veterinarian right away

Headaches are one of those conditions that don’t typically cause a lot of outward symptoms, and there are no objective tests to diagnose one. Plus, if your dog’s head is hurting from a headache, he has no way of telling you — but this doesn’t mean dogs don’t get them. I firmly believe many animals I’ve seen in the exam room may have headaches; they are sensitive to lights and sounds, they head press, squint and are suspiciously quiet (all the same symptoms I exhibit when I have a headache).

When researchers mapped out the human and canine genomes, they found dogs and humans have more than 80% genetic similarity.1 Biologically, dogs can develop many diseases and conditions that humans do, including those that cause headaches, so while it may not be possible to prove that dogs get headaches, most indications suggest they do.

Dogs Get Conditions That Cause Headaches in Humans

One of the leading keys suggesting dogs likely get headaches is that they suffer from many of the same conditions that cause headaches in humans. Speaking with Gizmodo, Tim Bentley, a veterinary neurologist-neurosurgeon with Purdue Veterinary Medicine, said:2

“I see dogs with problems like brain tumors or encephalitis that would cause pain or headache in human patients all the time. It’s not always easy to look at a canine patient and immediately answer the question: do they have a headache? But we do see cases where they have clinical findings that are consistent with pain, a diagnosis of a disease that could cause a headache, and then a response to treatment for headache.”

Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), brain tumors, sinus infections, glaucoma, syringomyelia, epilepsy, inner ear infections and swelling are all examples of conditions that occur in dogs that may cause headaches or headache-like pain. But add to that the day to day physical stress of ill-fitting collars, pulling on leashes (the equivalent of daily micro-whiplash, for some dogs) and certainly the potential for headaches becomes real.

Adam Boyko, Ph.D., an associate professor with Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine who conducts research on canine genetics, also told Gizmodo he believes changes in the shape of dogs’ skulls could also play a role in head pain.

“One of the ways that we’ve genetically changed dogs is that we’ve bred them to have all these different breed conformations, and one of the things that we’ve changed pretty profoundly is the shape of the skull, which causes differences in the shape of the brain case, so there’s all sorts of potential interactions going on there,” he said. “There’s a 50-fold difference in body size with some of these breeds.”3

Headaches May Also Be Caused by Granulomatous Meningoencephalitis

Granulomatous meningoencephalitis (GME) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease of the central nervous system that can be life-threatening. The inflammation results in granulomas, which are clusters of cells that form when the immune system tries to build a barrier against foreign substances.

The cells encircle blood vessels in the white matter of the brain and spinal cord, causing neurologic and ophthalmic symptoms. I believe headaches or even migraines are a symptom of this disease, as in my experience with these patients, there is clearly intense head pain. In fact, in my opinion any diagnosis that affects the brain may potentially cause headaches.

In GME, head pressing, in which an affected dog continually presses her head against a wall, couch or other stationary object, may occur. Other symptoms of headache pain in dogs may include:4

Squinting eyes

Shaking their head

Head pressing

Staring

Frequent blinking

Distressed/dull expression

Lowered or elevated head

Pacing

Doesn’t want to be approached or pet

Irritability or aggression

Valeri Farmer-Dougan, Ph.D., professor and director of the Canine Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at Illinois State University, further explained to Gizmodo:5

“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.”

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Migraines Reported in a Dog

The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine published a case report in 2013 of a 5-year-old Cocker Spaniel, who would experience periods of vocalizations and fear behavior for a few hours to a few days.6 The episodes occurred anywhere from twice a year to twice a month, and included other symptoms as well.

The dog would hold her head low, hide under furniture, avoid interactions and sometimes vomit or show symptoms of nausea, like frequent swallowing and lip smacking. The symptoms were strikingly similar to migraines that occur in people, leading the researchers to suggest this was likely the case for the cocker spaniel and recommend additional research to detect this condition in animals:7

“For centuries, migraines were treated with substantial skepticism and superstition, and it is only during the last few decades that it has been recognized as a severe disabling disease. Further case reports, studies, and an ‘open mind’ will be required to determine whether these conditions are likely to occur in our [veterinary] patients.

Even today, migraine and other headache disorders can be difficult to diagnose in people, and will likely be more problematic in animals despite a thorough and accurate history taking and extensive physical and diagnostic examinations.”

Do You Suspect Your Dog Has Headaches or Migraines?

If your dog displays symptoms that make you suspect he has headache pain, take him to see a functional medicine or integrative wellness veterinarian right away.

The first step should be a thorough workup to investigate possible underlying causes of head pain, including 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 potential exposure to toxins/poisoning (thorough evaluation of air and water quality, in addition to looking at toxins around the home and yard and chemicals prescribed by attending vets).

I have treated several patients who I believe were dealing with head pain successfully by removing environmental triggers and prescribing a fresh, chemical-free species-appropriate diet, while also addressing any sources of stress to the dog (including removing collar stress).

Some dogs additionally benefit from a detoxification protocol to remove toxins from their body, while natural substances to manage pain can also be given. Acupuncture can also be very helpful in managing acute head pain. Oral pain management options include:

Curcumoids (the active ingredient found in turmeric)

Cannabis extracts

Diffusing essential oils, including lavender, basil and peppermint

Riboflavin (vitamin B2)

Ubiquinol and n-acetylcysteine (NAC)

Herbs, including feverfew, ginkgo biloba, ginger, ginseng and butterbur

We may never know if dogs experience headaches in the same way that humans do, but there’s good reason to suspect they do. If your dog is among them, be sure to bring up the issue with your veterinarian so you can help your dog get some relief — especially if the headache symptoms are frequent or severe.