By Maura McAndrew
When we hear the term “concussion,” many of us automatically think of athletes. Football players, for example, frequently suffer this type of traumatic brain injury. But any one of us is at risk for a concussion, including our canine friends. “Dogs can get concussions because they can get traumatic injury to the brain,” explains Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer with the American Kennel Club and emergency department head emeritus at MedVet Chicago. “All dogs are susceptible, depending on experience.”
Head injuries in dogs can be less obvious than in humans, however, for the simple reason that dogs can’t talk to us. So what are the signs a dog is suffering a concussion? What can cause it? And what do we do about it? We spoke with a few experts to get the lowdown on concussions in our canine companions.
Causes of Canine Concussion
“For dogs, like people, a really common cause of concussion is vehicle accidents,” explains Dr. John McCue, veterinary specialist in internal medicine and neurology at the Animal Medical Center of New York City. “Especially in an urban area, this is just another reason for folks to keep their animals on leash or somewhat confined and not out or unsupervised around roadways.”
Though car accidents are the most frequent cause of concussion, Klein and McCue have seen a range of others, like falling from a porch or deck, colliding with other dogs or trees, getting kicked by large farm animals, or accidentally getting hit with a baseball bat or falling debris. Concussions typically result from “blunt injuries,” Klein says, though some are caused by attacks from another animal, when a dog might be shaken or thrown to the ground.
McCue notes that while larger dogs may spend more time outdoors, in dog parks and near roadways, small dogs are equally susceptible to concussions. “These dogs are often carried around. Sometimes they’re dropped, and that’s the source of their head trauma,” he says, adding that small dogs can also be more easily injured by roughhousing in the dog park—particularly if they’re tangling with a much bigger dog.
Another factor to take into account is dog breed: while all dogs can get concussions, Klein warns that dome-headed, toy breeds like Chihuahuas could be more prone to concussion due to open fontanelles or moleras, which are holes in the skull where bones have not fused together.
Symptoms of Canine Concussion
When a human experiences head trauma, a medical professional will initially ask questions to check memory and brain function. Obviously, Klein notes, “you can’t do that with an animal. You can’t ask them what year it is, what their name is, and things like that. So you look for tangible things that are apparent.”
The first and most urgent of these is consciousness—if your dog has lost consciousness, there’s no time to waste in getting him medical attention. But subtler signs can include problems balancing or walking, vomiting, or a condition called anisocoria, where pupils are different sizes. “If one is a pinpoint and the other is larger, and the dog has experienced some form of trauma, that’s kind of a red flag that the dog may have a concussion,” Klein says.
Even if your dog’s pupils and movement are normal, there are other signs that he or she may be suffering from a concussion. “The most common sign we see, just like in people, is a depressed level of consciousness,” explains McCue. “So the animal will look dull or sedated and is not interacting and not responsive to us after a head injury.” Another symptom that requires close attention is abnormal ocular reflexes. “Owners might pick up on rapid side-to-side or up-and-down movements of the eyes,” he says. “It looks like dogs are repeatedly following a train or car passing by very quickly.” If you observe any of these symptoms or other unusual behaviors following a traumatic event, prompt medical attention is strongly recommended.
What to Do If You Suspect a Concussion
The first thing to do in the case of any trauma your dog experiences is to stop whatever activity he/she is involved in and get to a calm, cool place. “If your pet has a normal level of consciousness and he’s OK, just a little shocked by what happened,” monitor him for any of the signs listed above, McCue says. In some cases, the dog will not display any symptoms. But if the trauma was significant enough, it’s better to err on the side of caution.
“I think that it would be safest to say that if you have a dog that has experienced any form of trauma to the head, then it’s best to have the dog seen as soon as possible by your veterinarian just to make sure there isn’t a problem,” Klein says. “Certainly if the dog has an altered mental condition, like loss of consciousness at some point—even if they’re recovered—then it warrants them being seen by a veterinarian.”
McCue notes that acting quickly is important when it comes to a concussion. “The time for intervention—when our therapies can be most effective—is very early on.” Sometimes, he explains, a dog might “just need a little bit of support [from the vet] so they can go home and eat and drink and be comfortable…But if the same animal doesn’t see a vet, and has some nausea, some pain, or isn’t eating and drinking well, those secondary problems after the primary trauma can start to evolve. And that can lead to a worse outcome.”
Remember that your pet can’t necessarily communicate their pain and confusion—it’s up to you to be observant and do what needs to be done. “The most important thing is to not be cavalier about it. If you witness, or someone witnesses, or you suspect that your dog has had some sort of trauma, it’s always better to have it checked out, because some of the worst things I’ve seen don’t look bad from the outside,” Klein says.
Getting Your Injured Dog to the Vet
To avoid further injury, it’s important to follow safety guidelines when transporting your dog to the vet. “If the dog is semi-conscious or not doing well,” Klein says, “the general rule is to keep the head elevated at about a 30-degree angle.” This relieves pressure on the brain, and can be done using a cushion or pillow.
Additionally, the dog “should not be restrained or picked up around the head or neck,” McCue says. He advises removing neck collars, as compression of neck tissue can hinder the blood flow to the brain. If you need to keep your dog on leash, a shoulder harness is preferable, or you can simply loop a leash or rope around one side of the neck and between the dog’s front legs.
A dog who cannot walk on his own will require a board or stretcher, which means you’ll need the help of a friend to get him safely into the car. “The key is—especially if they were hit by a car—to avoid a lot of manipulation. You don’t know what might be injured,” McCue says. If your pup is unconscious or suffering severe symptoms, it’s a good idea to call ahead to the vet’s office so they can prepare for your arrival.
So once you take your dog to the vet, what happens? According to our experts, diagnostic procedures and treatment will vary depending upon the severity of the injury, but there are a few standard procedures. “First, they’ll want to assess that the heart and lungs are working normally, and that there isn’t dehydration or low blood pressure,” says McCue. “Other common things would be intravenous fluid support, oxygen, and helping out with nausea.”
Typically with potential head trauma, Klein explains, the veterinarian will want to keep the dog for monitoring. “The reason for that is the situation can be dynamic—it can change. There could be swelling of the brain, and/or intracranial bleeding.” If this is the case, symptoms will worsen, so the vet will observe and conduct tests. “Usually the vet will conduct a neurologic evaluation, check the blood pressure and the temperature, sometimes give oxygen, and basically make sure things remain as normal as possible,” he says.
Observation by a vet is crucial, McCue adds, due to the danger of secondary injury when it comes to concussions. “Secondary injury is something that happens after that primary event,” he explains. “It sets off a cascade in the brain that involve swelling and inflammation and sometimes bleeding.” A veterinarian is equipped to catch these problems. For this reason, it’s best to get your pet into a medical setting instead of trying to monitor him at home.
While all of this may sound scary, a canine concussion is rarely this grave. As in humans, single concussions in dogs will not usually lead to severe, long-lasting damage, especially if treated in a timely manner. “In the best-case scenario with a concussion there may not be very much a veterinarian needs to do,” McCue says. If your pooch does not develop further symptoms during the monitoring period, he’ll usually be sent home fairly quickly. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions when it comes to follow-up care and activity restriction.
While dogs are indeed susceptible to concussions, they are preventable in most cases. Concussions don’t result from a little bump on the head here or there, but from more violent events like car accidents, animal attacks, or falls from high places—the types of calamities from which we, as pet parents, can offer protection. Keep your dog on leash or fenced in, not roaming the streets, and away from aggressive dogs or high, unstable places. “Prevention is key—responsible pet ownership,” McCue says. “A little bit of prevention and forethought can go a long way.”