How to know if your pet's got a headache

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Jun. 2, 2009

Have you ever wondered if your dog gets headaches when he’s under the weather? Whether your cat feels a sinus-ey stabbing pain behind her eyes when she’s got a cold? How would you know?

I’ve recently had cause to wonder whether my own dog gets headaches. As  some of you may be aware, Sophie Sue’s been strangely “off” lately, likely the result of some brain tumor-related issue (she was diagnosed with one a year ago and subsequently underwent radiation therapy to shrink it).

Her symptoms? She’s been sluggish, preferring to sleep longer and ambulate less. She’s also been head-shy, preferring not to be petted on top of her head (not like her at all). In fact, when she sees a hand move towards her head (as if to pet her)...she flinches. But she’s also weak in her hind legs, she’s wobbly, and a week ago she had a twitchy kind of seizure in the middle of the night.

That’s why I took her to have her brain re-imaged yesterday at Cooper City’s Animal Medical Center (Veterinary Specialists of South Florida). The MRI showed that her brain tumor was about a third of the size it was when we embarked on the 18 courses of radiation almost a year ago. Good news. It also demonstrated an increased fluid volume in her ventricles and in her middle ears. What’s up with that?

So far we have no idea what it all means. Dr. Ron Burk, a boarded radiologist at VSSF is currently reviewing them. A disk with her then and now images are also in my possession, ready to get scrunched into an email and sent to  Dr. David Lurie, top radiation oncologist at the University of Florida (soon to be at Miami Veterinary Specialists across the street from me in Miami). 

With all the vagaries of animal heads to be considered, the question is not only “what the heck is going on?” for me it’s also, “what the hell is she feeling?” 

You can always tell your doc your head hurts. An infant might dig at her ears when they’re in pain. Your toddler will point to where it hurts. But pets? We don’t have much to go on when it comes to headaches––or pain, in general. For animals we have to guess. And try different therapies. And hope we hit upon one that does as little harm as possible in our quest to bring them back to what we assume is their normal state. 

It always comes down to the age-old question: Can they see what we see? Do they feel what we feel? How do they experience the world? Do they get headaches? 

One thing I do know: When I told the oncologist (not the one I mentioned above) I suspected a headache, he kind of made a face––the kind of face that says, “OK, now you’re acting like a emotional pet owner and not like a scientist.” 

Stick to what we can know is the medical mantra. Yet, as a pet owner, how can I help not wondering? And as a veterinarian, how can articulating that curiosity and investigating it not help me arrive at better decisions? 


Patty Khuly, DVM


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