Has your pet suffered a concussion?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog concussion

Story at-a-glance -

  • Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury, and like humans, dogs are also at risk
  • Canine concussions are typically the result of an accident or injury, for example, being hit by a car or falling from an elevated surface to the ground
  • The most common sign of a concussion is an altered level of consciousness — the dog appears sedated and unresponsive
  • Treatment depends on the severity of the head trauma and symptoms; dogs may need to stay in the hospital for a short time to be monitored for changes in their condition

We don't often hear about dogs with concussions, so many pet parents wonder if it's even possible for a dog to suffer from one. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury, which essentially means any animal with a brain is at risk, including our canine companions.

Obviously, since dogs can't talk to us, it can be more difficult to determine if they've suffered a concussion than it is with a human. Questions you might have include, what causes such an injury? What are the symptoms? The treatment?

Causes of concussions in dogs

The same types of accidents and injuries that cause concussions in people can cause them in dogs. For dogs living in urban areas, a very common cause is vehicle accidents, which is why it's so important to supervise your dog and keep her leashed when you're out and about in the city.

Other potential causes for a dog's concussion can include a fall to the ground from a higher surface, running into another dog or tree during play, a kick to the head from a larger animal, accidentally getting hit with a baseball bat or being injured by falling debris. An animal attack or being shaken or thrown to the ground can also result in a concussion.

With small dogs, it's often a fall from their owner's or a child's arms or rough play with a bigger dog that causes head trauma. It's also possible that dome-headed small breeds like Chihuahuas are more prone to concussions due to soft spots in their skulls called moleras or open fontanelles.

Signs your dog may have a concussion

As with any injury or illness in a nonverbal four-legged family member, your powers of observation will be the most important tool as a first step in determining if your dog has suffered a concussion. Now, obviously, if your dog loses consciousness, it's a life-threatening emergency and you need to get her to your veterinarian or an emergency animal hospital immediately. Call the facility and give them a heads up that you're on your way.

Less dramatic symptoms to watch for include difficulty walking or balancing, vomiting and different sized pupils (one very small, the other larger), which is a classic sign that a dog has suffered head trauma of some sort. There can also be rapid side-to-side or up-and-down movements of the eyes as if the dog is watching something moving very quickly in front of her.

One of the most common symptoms of canine concussions is an altered level of consciousness in which the dog seems sedated, noninteractive and less responsive to her surroundings. If you observe one or more of these signs in your dog, even if you have no idea how she was injured, it's important to contact your veterinarian right away, since therapeutic intervention is most effective when it is instituted immediately.

Transporting your dog to the veterinary clinic must be done safely. Don't restrain her or pull or pick her up by holding the head or neck. It's a good idea to remove her collar, since any compression of the neck can inhibit blood flow to the brain. Use a harness instead if she must be on a leash.

Especially if your dog isn't fully conscious, be sure to keep her head elevated at about a 30-degree angle to relieve pressure on the brain. If she can't walk, you'll need to carry her to your vehicle on a board or stretcher, which means you'll need at least one extra set of hands. The goal is to avoid manipulating your dog's body as much as possible.

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Diagnosing and treating canine concussions

Once your dog is at the veterinary clinic, the diagnostic workup and treatment plan will depend on the severity of the injury. However, certain evaluations are a given, including ensuring his heart and lung function isn't compromised, he's not dehydrated and his blood pressure is normal. It may also be necessary to provide your dog with intravenous (IV) fluids, oxygen, pain and/or antinausea medication.

In cases of possible head trauma and concussion, dogs are typically held in the hospital for monitoring because the situation can change, and secondary injuries are a risk. For example, there can be brain swelling or bleeding within the skull. While your dog is in the hospital, your veterinarian will monitor his neurologic signs, blood pressure and temperature, oxygen levels and other measures.

Fortunately, canine concussions are rarely this serious. A single concussion in your dog won't typically result in severe or long-term damage, especially if he receives treatment right away. Once the inflammation is managed, I strongly recommend dogs with any type of head trauma see an animal chiropractor; realigning the dog's cervical vertebrae is an important step in preventing neck arthritis down the road.

Dog headaches

Another "head problem" that occurs in both humans and canines are headaches. Signs a dog's head hurts are sensitivity to lights and sounds, head pressing, squinting and being unusually quiet — the same symptoms seen in people with headaches. If your dog shows signs that make you suspect she has headache pain, take her 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've successfully treated several patients who I believe were dealing with head pain by removing environmental triggers and prescribing a fresh, chemical-free, species-appropriate diet, while also addressing any sources of stress (including collar stress). Some dogs also benefit from a detoxification protocol, and natural substances to manage pain can also be given. Acupuncture can be very helpful in managing acute head pain as well. Natural oral pain management options include:

  • Curcumoids (the active ingredient found in turmeric)
  • Cannabis or hemp extracts (CBD)
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
  • Ubiquinol and n-acetylcysteine (NAC)
  • Herbs including feverfew, ginkgo biloba, ginger, ginseng and butterbur

It can also be helpful to diffuse essential oils in your home, including lavender, basil and peppermint.

+ Sources and References
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