If your dog has been in a serious fall or been in an accident, you may be wondering: can dogs get concussions? And the answer is yes, dogs can get concussions, just like people.
A canine concussion is when a head injury impacts the brain, causing signs of lethargy, disorientation, different pupil sizes, and more. Knowing these signs is important because, unlike people, dogs aren’t able to tell us how they’re feeling.
If you witness your dog experiencing severe head trauma, call a vet. Skull fractures, bleeding or swelling of the brain are all clear signs of head injuries—and medical attention is critical. Most dogs will recover from severe head trauma if they are taken to a veterinary professional early enough.
“Anything that can cause blunt force trauma can, unfortunately, result in trauma to the brain,” says Dr Rebecca Greenstein, veterinary medical advisor for Rover and chief veterinarian at Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital. A small bump across the table may not necessarily cause a concussion, but a fall from a distance, especially for a small dog, might.
With the help of Dr Greenstein, we look at the signs of dog concussions, causes, treatment, and how to protect your dog in the future.
Signs Your Dog Has a Concussion
Similar to people, it’s important to monitor your dog if you suspect they’ve hit their head. Not all signs will appear right away.
But once you have confirmation of these symptoms, contact your vet and let them know how long your dog has been having them. As Dr Greenstein points out, your dog can’t confirm with you if they’re experiencing confusion or memory loss. But they will display signs and symptoms that are worth talking to a vet about.
A concussed dog may showcase:
- Different-sized pupils. If one pupil is bigger than the other following an injury, this is an indication of head trauma and requires immediate medical attention.
- Rapid eye movement. Dogs experiencing head trauma may lose control of their eye movement, which is also cause for quick vet care.
- Lethargy. Lethargy can be attributed to many different causes, but it can be a symptom of head injury. Generally, dogs experience lethargy when something medical is amiss.
- Disorientation. A dog concussion can cause your dog to experience confusion, which may manifest as disorientation.
- Seizures. Along the lines of rapid eye movement, a head injury may cause your dog to lose control of their body and trigger a seizure. This is another serious indicator that requires a vet trip.
- Inability to move. On the opposite end of the control-loss spectrum, if your dog is unable to move their body, this is an emergency situation in need of vet attention.
- Trouble standing or walking: Head injuries affect a dog’s movement and balance. If they are staggering or unable to move normally, again, this is an indication of a severe problem and needs to be medically addressed as soon as possible.
- Vomiting: As with lethargy, vomiting is not a guaranteed sign of concussion, but it may present after an injury is sustained. “Vomiting is such a nonspecific sign that it’s not always reliably linked with concussions,” says Dr Greenstein. If your dog is vomiting, be sure to monitor their water intake to avoid dehydration.
Any sign of head trauma is a sign to go to a vet
“Don’t assume that how [your dog is] in the first hour is going to reflect how they’re going to be over the coming hours or even days,” says Dr Greenstein. The key is to monitor your dog’s progression every 30 to 60 minutes. “If a patient seems okay initially, but then is progressively more sedate or having difficulty walking, you should seek medical attention immediately.”
What Causes Dog Concussions?
As mentioned, car accidents are the most common cause of concussions in dogs. However, depending on the size and age of your dog, there are many other ways for them to experience a concussion. A dog may sustain a concussion if they:
- fall from an elevated surface or down the stairs
- are kicked by livestock
- run into collisions with a hard object or surface
- have a violent interaction with a bigger dog
How to Transport Your Dog If They Have a Concussion
For canine concussions, time is of the essence. If you suspect your dog has a head injury, stop their activity immediately and keep your dog calm. Then work on your plan to get your dog to a vet immediately.
Transporting a dog with a head or neck injury can be tricky. “Having them struggle or flail, or moving them in varying positions can actually cause more damage,” says Dr Greenstein. If you’re able to have a vet or mobile vet come to you or perform triage at your location, that is ideal.
If a dog ambulance isn’t available, then you should use a stretcher or flat board to transport a dog with injuries. Dr Greenstein advises keeping your dog’s head elevated and their demeanour calm so they do not fall or experience further harm.
How Do Vets Treat Dog Concussions?
At the clinic, your vet will assess your dog’s airway, breathing, and heart status. This is to make sure your dog is not in any immediate danger, especially if the trauma was serious. The head trauma assessments will check to see whether your dog is or is not:
- losing fluid
- experiencing respiratory distress (also known as neurogenic pulmonary oedema)
- dropping oxygen levels
- present with a skull or skeletal fracture
This will help inform whether your dog needs medical therapy, surgical intervention, or both. Some treatments may include supportive care, depending on vital signs, says Dr Greenstein. Other treatment options may involve anti-inflammatories or therapies to address brain swelling, like elevating your dog’s head.
Medical treatments for dog head injuries:
Your vet may also recommend include:
- IV fluids. This can help dehydrated dogs who have been vomiting. Fluid therapy can also help regulate their blood pressure and restore blood volume.
- Oxygen therapy. If the trauma is causing breathing difficulty, oxygen therapy through a face mask will help your dog’s recovery.
- Steroids. This can help reduce swelling for mild to moderate head injuries.
- Surgery. Your vet may discuss surgery if your dog has skull fractures, clots, or needs a blood transfusion. This is not a common treatment approach and should be discussed with you before it happens.
What Does Head Trauma Recovery Look Like?
Recovery is dependent on the severity of the concussion. When you get home, you’ll need to prioritise rest for your dog. Your vet will provide tips on limiting activity and how to tell if your dog has fully recovered. They’ll also share what other signs you should monitor for, to ensure your dog is recovering well.
Dr Greenstein advises continuing to keep your dog calm and quiet at home, limiting activity and stimuli, and continuing to monitor symptoms. Should there be any change in their demeanour or mobility, get re-checked by the vet as soon as possible.
Why Small Dogs and Puppies Are More Vulnerable
“[The skull of] small dogs… is just smaller and thinner,” says Dr Greenstein. “Many breeds of small dogs, for example Chihuahuas, can be particularly vulnerable, because they can have a small opening in their skull called a fontanelle. That’s where the skull doesn’t properly fuse together, leaving a small gap where the brain is just directly below. In some breeds, this will persist into adulthood.”
This small, open fontanelle is also why puppies in the first stages of life are also vulnerable to concussions. Dr Greenstein further points out that puppies have thinner bones and haven’t completed their full neurological development, which also makes their heads vulnerable. In most cases, the skull will fuse and close by birth or shortly thereafter.
But, like a Chihuahua, the following breeds may have a fontanelle that remains into adulthood:
- Shih Tzus
- Yorkshire Terriers
- Lhasa Apsos
How To Prevent Your Dog From Getting A Concussion
It’s important to take preventative measures to minimise the chances of a concussion, especially for dogs that may be vulnerable to head injuries. Dr Greenstein says small and senior dog parents often underestimate just how easy it is for their dogs to experience a fall.
Keep the following in mind when to increase your dog’s safety:
- Keep your dog leashed or fenced in. “Never leave pets unsupervised around farm animals and it’s really important to know where your dog is,” says Dr Greenstein. One of the most common causes of head injuries she sees is dogs hit by a car having escaped while on a walk or from the garden. Be sure you have quality walking gear and good fencing in place, plus vigilant supervision, to help prevent a terrible incident.
- Secure your dog on car rides. Another common head injury cause is car accidents. While accidents happen and can’t always be avoided, it’s a good idea to do what you can for their safety. After all, we wear seatbelts! Look into car harnesses for your dog or use a crate to transport them safely from A to B.
- Avoid having your dog around more aggressive dogs. A larger dog can cause significant damage to smaller dogs if they show aggression or play aggressively. Dr Greenstein says that if you have a smaller dog, be sure to carefully supervise their play with a larger dog, or avoid play entirely.
- Supervise carefully when dogs are on elevated surfaces, such as the bed and stairs. “For a very tiny dog, falling off a standard height bed is like us falling a storey or more. Depending on how they land they can get seriously injured,” says Dr Greenstein. Likewise, stairs can be treacherous for older dogs that have compromised vision, especially at night or in low light. “If you have a pet with a history of collapse or seizures, you should also be careful about having them on elevated surfaces,” cautions Dr Greenstein.
Mistakes happen, even with the best prevention plans laid bare. Always seek your vet’s advice if you are uncertain about your dog’s head injury or overall health. A suspected head injury is always a cause for concern, and the best thing you can do for yourself and your dog is to remain calm and see your vet.
As Dr Greenstein says, it’s always better to play it safe than sorry, especially when it comes to a head injury.