Do Our Pets Get Migraine Headaches?

By Ken Tudor, DVM on Oct. 17, 2013

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), migraine headaches are the 19th most disabling condition for humans worldwide. Because there are no tests to prove a migraine is happening, humans rely on the ability to communicate their discomfort in order to receive treatment. Pets do not have that luxury.

So how do we know if pets suffer from migraines? Two veterinarians at the Royal Veterinary College in England reported the possibility in the latest Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

What Is a Migraine Headache?

Humans have suffered migraines for a long time. Babylonian writings from 3000 B.C. describe symptoms of clinical signs similar to those experienced today. Migraines are defined as a “recurrent headache disorder manifesting in attacks lasting 4-72 hours.” These headaches are generally located on a single side of the head with a pulsating quality that ranges from moderate to intense. Sufferers also report nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound.

The cause of migraines has yet to be fully identified. Researchers are uncertain if the changes in brain blood vessels common in migraine sufferers are the cause of the condition or the result of the condition. The strong hereditary nature of the condition has led scientists to suspect some genetic influence, but have yet to identify a common gene for migraines.

Earlier treatments for migraines consisted primarily of non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for their ability to reduce pain. Aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen are a few of the more common NSAIDS. Now treatment is more focused on drugs that constrict the brain arteries and veins.

The Dog Migraine Case Study

A 5-year-old female, neutered Cocker Spaniel was brought to the Royal Veterinary College teaching hospital for episodes of vocalizations and fear behavior lasting 2-4 hours and extending up to 3 days. In addition to the vocalization, the owners noted hypersalivation, hiding, and avoidance behaviors. The episodes had started when the dog was 5 months old and occurred about twice a year. At the time of admission to the teaching hospital they were occurring monthly. The owners were considering euthanasia.

Her physical exam, blood and urine test, and specialty test were all normal. An MRI of her head and neck and spinal fluid analysis were all normal. The doctors concluded that the condition was probably related to an epileptic-type seizure disorder and she was started on phenobarbital.

She re-presented to the college clinic with another episode characterized by vocalization and apparent pain as well as light and sound sensitivity. She was started on acetaminophen and another anti-seizure drug. These treatments also failed. Suspecting a migraine type condition, the doctors then put her on a drug used to treat human migraines, called topiramate.

After initiation of topiramate, the episodes became shorter. With dosage adjustments, vocalization during the episodes ceased, she was eager to exercise, and showed no light or sound sensitivity. The owners became very astute at recognizing the onset of episodes and used the drug only as needed. After 18 months the frequency of her episodes are one every 2-3 months and are well controlled with timely treatment. The owners perceive her as having a good quality of life with the drug and no longer consider euthanasia.

Do Dogs Have Migraines?

Because there are no definitive tests for diagnosing migraines, these doctors cannot confirm that this dog suffered from that condition. However, the dog suffered similar symptoms used to diagnose migraines in humans and responded to a drug used to treat humans. We veterinarians may have to include headaches as a possibility for similar cases.

Do you think your dog or cat has headaches or migraines? Has your vet been suspicious? Let us know how you are responding to the headache events.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: arvitalyaa / Shutterstock

Last reviewed on July 31, 2015


Ken Tudor, DVM


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