Medically reviewed by Dr. Paula Simons, DVM
Dogs, like people, can develop concussions.
Normal, active dogs love to run and play without fear. Pet parents love to see their dogs play, romp, and maybe even get into a little harmless mischief. Unfortunately, accidents happen.
Dogs can sustain concussions from a variety of situations, including car accidents, falls from excessive heights, rough play, running into something hard, or being struck by something falling.
Something as simple as running into a glass door can cause a concussion depending on the force of the impact and the size of the dog.
In this post, we’ll discuss the causes and clinical signs of concussions in dogs, as well as the treatment options available.
What is a Concussion?
A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that occurs when the brain is jolted or shaken violently.
This can cause the brain to bounce around or twist inside the skull, leading to bruising, swelling of brain tissue, and long-term damage to the brain cells.
Are Some Dogs More at Risk of Concussion?
Any dog breed can sustain a concussion, but certain breeds may be more susceptible to head injuries due to their size or the types of activities they participate in.
For example, larger dogs such as Great Danes and Saint Bernards may be more prone to concussion due to their size and weight, which can cause more force to be transmitted to the head in the event of a fall or collision.
Small Dog Concussions
Small dogs such as Chihuahuas and Toy Poodles may also be at greater risk for concussion due to their size and fragility.
Large Dog Concussions
Dogs who play high-impact sports like agility, flyball, and frisbee may also have a higher chance of experiencing a concussion.
Causes of Brain Injuries in Dogs
A number of things can lead to brain injuries in dogs. Vehicle accidents, however, are the most common cause of concussion in dogs.
Other causes include the following:
- Blunt trauma to the head (such as being hit by a car or falling from high places)
- Colliding with other dogs or trees
- Getting kicked by farm animals
- Accidentally getting hit in the head from hard objects
- Animal attacks (when the dog is shaken or thrown to the ground)
These are just some causes of brain injury to dogs. Anything that causes direct impact to the dog’s head can cause concussion. Blunt injuries require emergency treatment.
It’s important to note that there are both primary brain injuries (that direct result of brain injury), and secondary brain injuries that can occur as a result of the initial injury.
Symptoms of Concussion
A concussion in dogs is a traumatic brain injury that can occur after a blow to the head or a sudden stop, such as in car accidents.
Signs of head trauma in dogs may include:
1. Loss of consciousness
Dogs who have experienced a concussion may lose consciousness for a short period.
Dogs with a concussion may appear confused or disoriented, and may not recognize familiar people or places.
3. Balance issues
Dogs with a concussion may have trouble walking, and may stumble or fall frequently.
4. Changes in behavior
Dogs with a concussion may exhibit changes in behavior, such as becoming more aggressive or lethargic.
Seizures may occur in dogs with a concussion.
6. Changes in appetite and thirst
Dogs with a concussion may lose their appetite and may not want to drink water
The dog may experience bleeding from the nose, ears, or eyes.
8. High Fever or Low Body Temperature
A dog who has suffered brain trauma may find it difficult to control his body temperature, leading to fever or a dangerously low body temperature. A very slow heartbeat is possible.
9. Change in Pupil Size (Aniscoria)
Pupil size may vary. They may also oddly respond to light.
A severe impact on the brain can impact the central nervous system’s overall performance. In some cases, your dog’s pupil size may appear normal but you notice the eyes moving rapidly from side-to-side, or up-and-down.
Diagnosing Concussions in Dogs
Concussions in dogs can be difficult to diagnose because dogs cannot tell us how they are feeling or describe their symptoms.
If a veterinarian suspects that a dog may have experienced a concussion, they will perform a physical examination to assess the dog’s overall health and to look for signs of brain injury.
This examination will typically involve taking the dog’s vital signs, such as pulse, temperature, and respiratory rate, to get a baseline reading of the dog’s overall health. The veterinarian will also check the size and reactivity of the dog’s pupils, as well as movements of the eyes, looking for signs of brain injury such as nystagmus or involuntary eye movement.
In addition, the veterinarian will check the dog’s reflexes, such as the pupillary light reflex, which can be affected by concussion.
The veterinarian will also observe the dog’s behavior and assess their mental state, looking for signs of confusion, disorientation, or memory problems, which can be symptoms of concussion.
A neurological examination to assess the dog’s brain function, including its level of consciousness, reflexes, gait, and muscle strength, may also be performed.
Imaging tests such as X-rays, a CT Scan, and MRI can help reveal changes in brain function or detect internal bleeding or injuries that may have occurred as a result of the accident.
The veterinarian may perform blood tests to assess the dog’s overall health and to look for signs or sequela of brain injury.
An EEG is a test that measures the brain’s electrical activity. The veterinarian may use an EEG to assess the brain’s function and look for brain injury signs. This is primarily performed by veterinary neurologists.
Cerebral Spinal Fluid Analysis (CSF)
The veterinarian may collect a sample of the dog’s cerebral spinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord, and send it to a laboratory for analysis. An abnormal CSF sample can be a sign of brain injury.
Medical Treatment for Dogs with Concussions
The treatment for a dog with a concussion will depend on the severity of the injury.
Dogs who have suffered an obvious head injury are treated as emergency patients.
Some dogs may arrive in shock and treating the shock itself can have a positive impact on recovery. Signs of shock in dogs include pale gums, lethargy, confusion, decreased body temperature, and increased or abnormal heart rate.
For a mild concussion, your vet may recommend rest and monitoring for a few days to see if the symptoms resolve on their own.
Severe concussions may require medications to reduce swelling and inflammation in the brain. The veterinarian will recommend that your dog be hospitalized for closer observation and supportive care.
At Home Care
Once the veterinarian has discharged your dog, there are important things you can do to help your dog recover as quickly as possible.
No Strenuous Activity
Avoid letting your dog engage in any strenuous activities or rough play, and do not allow them to climb stairs or jump on and off furniture.
You may also need to restrict their access to certain areas of your home to prevent them from accidentally hurting themselves.
It is also important to keep a close eye on your dog for any changes in their behavior or condition, and to report any concerns to your vet as soon as possible.
With proper care and attention, most dogs with concussions will make a full recovery.
Risk of Not Treating Concussions in Dogs
A concussion in a dog is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention. Delayed treatment can lead to several serious complications, including:
Difficulty with balance and coordination
Concussions can cause dogs to have trouble with balance and coordination, which can make it difficult for them to walk or perform other activities.
Changes in behavior
Dogs with concussions may exhibit changes in their behavior, such as becoming more aggressive or anxious.
Concussions can cause seizures in dogs, which can be life-threatening.
In severe cases, a dog with a concussion may fall into a coma, which can be fatal.
Up Next On Your Reading List
A concussion or traumatic brain injury in a specific dog is not always obvious. In some cases, the cause may never be determined.
If you suspect that your dog may have suffered a concussion, it’s important to seek veterinary care as soon as possible.
While dogs can fully recover from mild concussions, it’s vital that a veterinarian examine your dog for signs of serious brain injury. Brain injuries that are not treated promptly can lead to permanent brain damage or death.
“Symptoms of Concussions in Your Dog From Expert Vet in Simi Valley.” Dr. Ron’s Animal Hospital, 21 Oct. 2020, www.drronsanimalhospitalsimivalley.com/blog/symptoms-of-concussions-in-your-dog-from-expert-vet-in-simi-valley.
“Brain Injury in Dogs | VCA Animal Hospital.” Vca, vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/brain-injury-in-dogs. Accessed 19 Dec. 2022.
SCHUBERT.THOMAS. “Nervous System Disorders and Effects of Injuries in Dogs – Dog Owners – Merck Veterinary Manual.” Merck Veterinary Manual, www.merckvetmanual.com/dog-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-dogs/nervous-system-disorders-and-effects-of-injuries-in-dogs. Accessed 19 Dec. 2022.
Boatright, VMD; Kate, and Kate Boatright VMD. “Managing Head Trauma in Veterinary Patients.” DVM 360, 27 Aug. 2021, www.dvm360.com/view/managing-head-trauma-in-veterinary-patients.