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Can Dogs Get Concussions?

golden retriever in a wheat field staring off into the distance

Most of our dogs aren’t known for their gracefulness. Something about that canine enthusiasm makes them run headfirst into any situation — acting first and maybe thinking about it later. 

The sound of those adorable, thick skulls knocking into the coffee table, door frame, or even our legs is familiar in many of our households. But do we have to worry about that the same way we would if it happened to any of our other family members? Can dogs get concussions? 

The answer is yes — but the symptoms are much less obvious than in humans.

What Is a Concussion?

Concussions are a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). These injuries happen after a significant blow, bump, or jolt directly to the head, but they can also occur after an impact on the body that causes the head (and, subsequently, the brain) to move back and forth rapidly. 

The trauma that causes to the brain and the space surrounding it can cause swelling. Sometimes, that swelling can get so severe it becomes symptomatic and can cause brain damage or death.

What Can Cause Concussions in Dogs?

Many of the same causes of concussions in humans impact our canine friends — the physiology of traumatic brain injury is the same for both of our anatomy. Anything that can impact the brain has the potential to cause a concussion, which can include a wide range of possibilities. 

For instance, car accidents are one of the leading causes of concussions in humans and dogs. It doesn’t have to be a high-speed, high-impact collision. Any collision that can give cause whiplash can “shake” the brain and induce brain trauma. 

Other direct trauma to the head, like getting kicked by a horse or having something accidentally fall on them, can also cause brain injury. However, indirect trauma is also to blame for concussions, so don’t write off other types of injury as a potential cause. 

Other causes of concussions in dogs include:

  • Being dropped (especially with smaller dog breeds like chihuahuas)
  • Dog fights or overly aggressive play
  • Getting shut in a door
  • Getting accidentally hit with a ball or a bat

Signs and Symptoms of a Concussion in Dogs

Can dogs get concussions? Absolutely! Do they look the same as dogs as they do in humans? Unfortunately, while many signs and symptoms are the same, they can be substantially harder to diagnose. 

If you’re worried that your dog may have suffered a concussion, here are some more easily recognizable things to watch out for. However, if your dog has had a head injury, we strongly urge you to seek veterinary care right away.

Balance Issues

It is a red flag if your dog struggles to walk in a straight line or even stand up after a head injury. While they can also indicate an underlying issue, like a brain tumor or inner ear infection, if they suddenly appear after trauma, your dog has earned themselves an immediate trip to the emergency vet.  

Behavioral Changes

As trauma-related swelling increases around the brain, it can cause your dog to experience changes in their behavior. These behavioral changes can look like confusion (getting lost in the house, not recognizing family members) or aggression.

Changes in Pupil Size

Other signs of concussions in dogs are more subtle, like a change in the size of their pupils. Unlike how pupils react to changing light — dilating in dim light and constricting in bright light — head trauma can cause the pupils to be obviously different sizes and respond differently to light. 

Often, this is due to increased pressure around the brain and should be considered an emergency (especially if it occurs after a trauma).

Lethargy

We’ve all heard the advice — don’t let someone go to sleep immediately after a head injury. While that is no longer a medical recommendation, a dog that is overly tired or lethargic after a head injury (especially if it’s difficult to rouse them) should be quickly seen by a veterinarian. 

Loss of Consciousness 

While it goes without saying if your dog loses consciousness immediately after a head injury, they should be taken to an emergency veterinarian immediately. A loss of consciousness can indicate a concussion and may point to more significant damage.

Seizures

Seizures can happen to any dog at any time, but if they occur following an injury to the head, it should be another red flag that your dog needs to be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

Vomiting

On its own, vomiting once or twice isn’t always an emergency. However, if that vomiting occurs after a head trauma — especially if combined with other signs of a concussion — it should be taken seriously. 

What To Do if You Suspect Your Dog Has Had a Concussion

If you suspect your dog has a concussion or head injury, your first stop should be at your veterinarian’s office. Our dogs can’t talk and tell us what’s wrong with them, so what’s happening on the surface is often just the tip of the iceberg. Your vet will be able to assess them, determine the extent of their injury, and triage them appropriately. 

Not only should you take your dog to the vet, but you should also do it as shortly after the injury happens as possible. The longer you wait, the more damage your dog’s brain can be done. 

But it’s not just about getting there quickly — it’s also about getting there safely. While you’re getting your dog in the car, avoid restraining or holding them by their head, neck, or collar. It’s best to take their neck collar off, if possible, as trauma-related swelling can happen quickly and cut off their circulation and ability to breathe. 

If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of head trauma, keep their head elevated to a 30-degree angle (either on a pillow or on your lap) in the car as well. Doing this helps to minimize pressure on the brain. 

Concussion Treatment

Once you arrive at the vet and your dog has been assessed, your vet will suggest a care plan. Because you can’t “fix” a concussion, treatment revolves around the management of symptoms and making your dog as comfortable as possible while they recover. 

IV Fluids

One of the ways to manage concussion symptoms is by giving the dog intravenous (IV) fluids. Fluid resuscitation helps restore the fluid balance in the body, which can be thrown off due to shock or trauma. It also helps replace any fluids lost through excessive vomiting — often combined with medications given to help decrease any nausea they may be feeling. 

Rest and Observation

A dog recovering from a head injury needs plenty of rest to heal. In addition to minimizing any swelling around the brain, your dog will likely be sore (depending on what caused the concussion in the first place). 

If your dog’s head trauma was severe enough, your veterinarian might recommend actually keeping them in the clinic for monitoring — at least for the first 24 to 48 hours. 

More than just simply allowing them to rest, keeping them for observation also lets your veterinarian monitor and quickly treat any secondary complications that may arise. 

How Can I Prevent My Dog From Getting a Concussion?

Prevention is always the best tactic — why treat your dog for a concussion (and everything that comes with it) when you can stop one from happening in the first place?

Protecting your dog involves minimizing the risks that may put your dog in a position to be injured. Does your dog get stressed when you’re not around? Give them CBD soft chews a few hours before a stressful event, and consider crating them when you’re gone. 

Do you have a small dog that likes to go out on your porch? Put up a baby gate so they can’t wiggle through the slats. Love taking your dog on car rides? Invest in a doggie seatbelt to keep them safe in the event of a car accident.

We also strongly recommend not taking your dog out without a lead, even if they are trustworthy. Even the best dog can get startled or distracted, putting them at risk of running in front of a car or getting into a fight with another dog. 

Keeping them on a lead keeps them as safe as possible, especially if you’ve got your head up and are staying alert to everything around you. 

In Summary

Can dogs get concussions? Yes, they can, and unfortunately, those concussions can often be more challenging to diagnose since they can’t speak up for themselves. If you suspect your dog may have a head injury (especially if you saw the injury happen), the best course of action is to seek medical care right away to minimize the repercussions. 

Our dogs rely on us to take care of them; it’s our responsibility to do the best we can. We know that’s a tall order, but remember — ElleVet is here for you!

Sources: 

Managing seizures | Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine 

Managing head trauma in veterinary patients | DVM360 

The Fluid Resuscitation Plan in Animals – Emergency Medicine and Critical Care | Merck Veterinary Manual 

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