Do dogs get headaches?

Humans For Sure Get Headaches

A week ago, I decided I was going to stop drinking caffeine. Now if you know me at all, you know I adore coffee, more than almost anything else in life. If you cut my arm, skinny vanilla latte would pour out. The decision to give up my biggest vice was not an easy one by any means, but at the end of the day, health trumps pleasure, and I figured there’s always decaf.

I did what everyone tells you not to do, and just stopped cold turkey. Big mistake, everyone.

8 am: I felt a little sluggish, but not too off. This is totally manageable.

10 am: I felt really sluggish, like I was about to fall off the kitchen barstool; a sober drunk. I am still mostly coherent, though, so I figure I can continue to tough it out. My children look on in confusion.

noon: I felt a little twinge in the back of my temple, just a tiny blip of a possible headache. I take 2 Advil. Ah yes, the infamous caffeine headache. It’s not too bad, though.

3 pm: An small but bloodthirsty miniature barbarian horde has invaded my head. They have taken microscopic pickaxes to my sinuses and are attempting to harvest my eyeballs through the back of my orbits. Paralyzed by exhaustion, I am unable to tell anyone of my predicament as I am systematically destroyed.

Here they come.

Here they come.

5 pm: My husband finds me slumped on the bed in the fetal position, moving centimeter by centimeter in slow motion because every time a wave of movement jolts the marauding horde in my cranium, they get angry again. He has no way to tell that this is what is going on; as far as he knows, I have the flu, or allergies, or I ate some bad Greek yogurt. In a feathery voice, I whisper: “Make me a cup of coffee, if you would.”

I admit defeat, and give the barbarians their drugs.

7 pm: Feel fine.

If you are not someone who experiences headaches, you have my complete and utter envy. While my caffeine withdrawal headache was nasty (I have since elected for a more subtle weaning-off process), I used to suffer migraines as well and those would pretty much put you out of commission in a blinding stroke of agony, nausea, and an unending mantra: please let me go unconscious please let me go unconscious. And despite the misery and despair you are experiencing, to the outside you simply look like someone who doesn’t feel that great.

But what about dogs?

At 11 pm, recovered but now fully awake from my late night caffeine jolt, I started thinking about dogs and headaches. As veterinarians, we aren’t really trained in the idea that dogs get headaches, so therefore they don’t exist. Well, pain in the head is not a disease, it’s a clinical sign of a disease process, such as dehydration, brain tumors, or any number of other problem that both dogs and humans do get, so it’s not unreasonable to think they might get head pain as well. They get other kinds of pain, after all. But objectively speaking, we have no idea whether or not a dog gets a headache because there’s no way for them to describe it as such.

I suspect they do get them. Have you ever seen a dog with a hangover? I have, sadly, in the ER. It’s not funny, it’s actually very sad that someone would knowingly intoxicate an animal, but the morning after they really do look like every college kid on a Sunday morning. Whatever it is they are feeling, it’s not super awesome.

At my first job, I worked with an old timer who always criticized how long it took my pets to wake up from anesthesia. “Look how quickly mine wake up!” he’d crow proudly. 20 minutes after a spay they were up and pacing. Mine were usually out for at least an hour or two. Eventually I decided to take a look at the differences in technique, and the main difference was this: I gave a lot more pain medications. My pain protocol back then was an eye-roller to many, but is now standard in many hospitals. My patients weren’t taking too long to recover, they were sleeping because their pain was being managed appropriately and they were comfortable.

If you could tell the cat to please stop playing the bongoes over there, that would be great.

If you could please stop playing the bongoes over there, that would be great.

If you talk to your typical veterinary anesthesiologist or oncologist, many of them will tell you that most people- vets included- tend to underestimate the amount of pain a pet experiences, assuming if a pet is not howling in pain they are OK. The more we learn, the more we are realizing the effect of pain on health, and how much more we can do to alleviate it. We are getting better about that as a profession, and I’m glad to see more and more vets adopting aggressive pain management protocols for everything from cancer to arthritis, but at the end of the day we can’t really manage a symptom we don’t know exists.

So to answer the question: Do dogs get headaches? I hope not, but I suspect they might. Poor dogs. Good thing Brody’s not hooked on caffeine.

Know your dog or cat. Know what is normal behavior and what is off. And if you suspect something is wrong, trust your instincts, and get them to a vet. Subtle signs can mean big things going on.


Filed: Ask Dr. V, Blog, Dogs, Health, Musings Tagged: , ,
  • Amy

    I had a roommate in college that got severe migraines. When she felt one coming on she would drink Coke for the caffeine. (There was no Jolt Cola in those days.) Perhaps you are unconsciously self medicating?

    Years ago, my parents left my brother home while we went to the shore (he was earning money for college and didn’t want to take vacation) We later learned that he had a beer party as apparently a number of guys slept it off in the yard and our neighbors noted this. My brother admitted to it and commented that even the dog apparently had been poured some beer as he, also, was laid flat out in the yard the next morning. Billy never even sniffed at a beer bottle after that.

    • Seems 95% of the drunk dog incidents involve a 17-23 year old male in the house. It’s always their moms who bring the dog in, though, and are horrified at the diagnosis.

      • Deborah Ames

        I noticed during my very brilliant yorkie’s end of life care that when i massaged His head and large hind muscles he was able to eat a little more than if I didn’t . I think our dogs have very similar pain to us also and just can’t say anything to us and the more they are socialized with us….the more we will understand them.

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart

    You know, when Lilly first developed brain / spinal cord inflammation in January 2012, I asked again and again about pain. Everyone told me that she didn’t have pain, but I could NOT imagine it wouldn’t hurt. I do think she gets headaches when the inflammation flares, but I’ve never been given pain meds to give her.

  • Cathey Avery

    Yet another reminder (and I think we all need it) that animals can be very stoic about their physical condition, sometimes hard to remember when they are running along beside you at 14-15 years of age. Just remember that when they lay down afterwards and don’t move, they probably can’t. Gentle exercise for the geriatrics!!

  • JaneK

    It is actually a similar thing in neonates. They are not wailing so they don’t feel pain, right? Wrong! They have completely checked out b/c their nervous system is too raw to deal with the pain! Glad we are making progress in both areas…. Hopefully, we will keep moving forward in our understanding if precious lives that cannot speak.

    • One of the (multiple) reasons I never performed tail docks.

  • One

    I stopped caffeine cold turkey because back then – it was many years ago – I didn’t know about the headaches. It was the worst time – I had ferocious headaches. Finally, someone mentioned caffeine withdrawal headaches and I realized that was what was happening and I immediatley started drinking coffee again. All was right with my world right away!

  • Rosemary

    Week 1- mix beans or grounds, 3/4 regular, 1/4 decaf
    Week 2- half and half
    Week 3 – 1/4 regular, 3/4 decaf
    week 4 – all decaf

    No headaches, no withdrawal.