As most of you know, my little Peke boy, Bumble, has many physical problems, not least of which are epileptic seizures. Last week, he had a particularly nasty round of seizures. When he went in for his cold laser and Alpha Stim treatment (the first is for joint inflammation, the other for pain management), Dr. Buchanan and I were talking about his symptoms.
I made the comment that Bumble had been acting basically like he had a migraine. I was just trying to put his distress behavior into anthropomorphic terms. I was really kind of astonished when Dr. B nodded and said, “He probably did.”
Apparently animals, just like people, can get headaches. It makes sense, when you think about it. The problem is that we just don’t think about it! A dog can’t really tell you his head hurts. So I asked about symptoms. The two primary symptoms Dr. B offered were a perfect fit for Bumble – sensitivity to light and reluctance to open the mouth to eat.
I had been assuming Bumble was reluctant to eat because he was so exhausted and off his game after three seizures in 36 hours. But he would happily drink liquefied food or pedialyte with chicken broth; it took less effort and didn’t require him to chew. Dr. B confirmed that dogs with headaches are often reluctant to chew. The thought is that it may be painful to the dog when he works the jaw to chew.
I also noticed that Bumble would not lower his head to eat or drink. If I brought the bowl up to him, he would slurp up what was within easy reach. But he would not extend his head and neck downward, even for his favorite stewed chicken. His chiropractor (Uncle Scott) adjusted his head and neck, which helped, but even so, he still obviously felt bad.
Unusual lethargy or crankiness can also be considered symptomatic. Another indicator for Bumble – whether cause or symptom, I’m not sure – is that his body temperature rises sharply when he has seizures. That sudden opening of all his blood vessels and corresponding blood pressure spike can definitely be associated with a serious headache. Headaches are basically the result of the blood vessels either constricting or over-expanding.
Think about your own headaches – what makes you feel better? Ice? Or a heating pad? If ice helps more, then your headaches are probably the result of over-dilated blood vessels. If heat helps more, then your blood vessels are constricted and the heat helps open them up.
In Bumble’s case, there are several probable causes for his headaches. First, he is sensitive to seasonal allergies. Second, the extreme muscle contractions that accompany seizures can cause headaches. (And much like the infamous chicken-egg debate, muscle tension resulting from a headache can cause seizures.) Third, he is extremely sensitive to barometric pressure changes. In fact, I have noticed that he consistently has seizures within 12 hours before or after I have a pressure-related headache.
So what can we do for a dog we suspect has a headache? If the dog is trying to avoid light, let him. If his skin, especially his head, feel unusually hot to the touch, keeping him cool can help. Bumble has a Cool Bed, which transfers heat from his skin and cools him gently. When he feels extremely hot, I also use a small ice pack between his shoulder blades. One caveat – you don’t want to cool the dog too abruptly, because a sudden constriction of the vessels is just as painful. Bumble has very dense hair to protect him from being shocked by the cold, so the small ice pack lowers his body temp at a reasonable pace. A cool (not cold) damp cloth to the belly or neck can do the trick too.
Bumble also takes antihistamines to help with allergy symptoms and lessen the effect of the barometric pressure changes. They do make NSAID pain relievers for dogs; talk to your vet to see what the best choice for your pet is, and to make sure that the medication will not react badly with whatever other medications your pet might be on. If you’re thinking of using “over the counter” pet pain relievers, clear it with your vet first.
It can be challenging to learn to recognize symptoms of pain in many dogs, as they hide them well and can’t complain the way humans do. But the better you know your pet, the easier it is to notice small behavioral changes that may indicate pain. And pain can be managed, so that your pet can be comfortable.