The human brain is a delicate organ that needs cherishing and protecting. Even inside its own protective carry case (the skull), at times this needs beefing up by wearing a crash helmet. Why go to all this trouble? Because of the risk of concussion or brain injury.
Concussion results from a bump, blow, or sharp jerk to the head. This causes swelling or a contusion (small bleed) in the brain, which makes the brain go haywire. The symptoms in people include headache, dizziness, double vision, and mood swings (depending on what part of the brain is damaged).
But what about dogs?
Can Dogs Get a Concussion?
While they can't tell us if they have a headache, MRI scans do tell us that dogs get brain swelling or bleeds just like people do. They also need to be treated as an emergency, just as in people.
Does My Dog Have Concussion?
A concussion is caused by trauma. If your dog has had a blow to the head or a heavy fall (the head doesn't have to contact the ground) then be alert for:
Walking in circles
Staggering and lack of coordination
Bleeding from the ears or nose
Stupor or altered response
Lack of energy
Dilated pupils or difference in pupil size
The signs should be put in context. If a dog has had a recent trauma, then concussion is likely. If not, another explanation should be sought for the symptoms such as:
Encephalitis or inflammatory brain disease
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels)
To make a diagnosis, the vet performs a full clinical exam and checks for signs of trauma. Where appropriate, an MRI scan is the gold standard for identifying a concussion. If an accident is unlikely, then blood tests can help narrow down the possible alternate cause of the symptoms.
How Do I Treat My Dog's Concussion?
A dog can't tell us if they have a thumping headache. Therefore, by the time the dog shows obvious symptoms such as staggering, a significant amount of swelling has already taken place.
Thus, if your dog has an accident, it's crucial to get a vet checkup regardless of how the dog seems initially. The vet will check pupillary responses and other neurological pathways, which give them clues that a significant problem has occurred. This gives a head start (excuse the pun) on treatment.
After a concussion, it's important your dog takes things easy for a while.
Avoid strenuous exercise: Vigorous games of ball or fetch are off the menu for the next few weeks.
Appropriate pain relief: Your vet will prescribe a medication that's safe with a brain injury (For example, aspirin is best avoided as it can promote bleeding.)
Monitoring: Be alert for any deterioration, such seizures or fainting episodes, and consult the vet.
How is Concussion Similar in Dogs and Humans?
Person or pet, concussion must be taken seriously. Seeking urgent help is important, because reducing swelling in the early stages can limit potentially life-threatening complications.
In both people and dogs, it can take weeks to months for the damage to be fully repaired and the symptoms settle down. And in both cases, further trauma should be avoided, and steps taken to protect the head from further injury. While a dog won't wear a crash helmet, we can avoid over exerting them, which protects the brain from spikes in blood pressure.
How is Concussion Different in Dogs and Humans?
A dog's skull is the equivalent of a bulldozer, when compared to the flimsy human skull. The former also has thick muscles over the skull, which act as built-in cushions. All of this adds up to a reduced risk of skull fracture and decreased risk of concussion. This doesn't mean concussion can't happen, but rather that it's more unusual and more serious when it does.
Another difference is the dog can't tell us they have a headache. Thus, we lose this valuable early clue that your best buddy has a big problem brewing. As a pet parent, it helps to know your dog's behavior inside out, so that you can spot when something isn't quite right and get help.
In hot pursuit of the neighbor's cat, Roco flies across the road to get a glancing blow from a passing car. His head thuds against the pavement and he loses consciousness. Roco comes to after a few seconds, but is left staggering and disoriented.
His owner rushes Roco to the vet. At the clinic, Roco is able to walk, but stands with his legs widely placed and seems confused. The vet notes some of the dog's reflexes are delayed and his pupils are enlarged.
Roco is admitted and put on an intravenous drip containing mannitol. This reduces fluid swelling on the brain, to limit damage done by concussion. Fortunately, Roco has no broken bones and after 48 hours of observation, he is able to go home.
However, Roco is confined to lead walks only for the next two months, and a gate is put on the front yard, to stop him chasing cats.