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grey matters: dr. kim smyth examines brain injuries in dogs

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan


My husband is a college football official, so football season is a big deal around our house.  Talk often centers around the sport, and this season the most popular topic is the new rule making helmet-to-helmet contact illegal.  While controversial, I think we all agree that a safer sport is more enjoyable to watch.  However, it did get me thinking about brain injuries in dogs.  Certainly, our dogs aren’t subject to the wear and tear that football players are, but they can still sustain injuries that cause damage to their brains.

For the most part, canine brain injuries occur due to trauma. Dogs can also experience vascular problems in their brains (strokes) but we’ll cover that particular type of brain injury in a few weeks. For today, I’ll stick mostly with the football theme and discuss primary brain injuries due to trauma, with a mention of some types of secondary brain injury.

Primary brain injuries are due to direct trauma to the brain itself. Concussions result from head trauma without structural damage to the brain, while contusions involve hemorrhage (bleeding) or swelling of brain tissue.  The most common cause of traumatic brain injury in dogs is being hit by a car, but farm dogs also know that being trampled or kicked by livestock is a real threat for brain injuries around the farm.  Falls and penetrating injuries round out the list of the most common causes of traumatic brain injuries.

Secondary brain injuries occur due to some underlying medical cause. Toxicities, free radical damage, and low blood supply leading to tissue death are common causes.

Clinical signs of traumatic brain injury can be quite obvious depending on their severity.  Signs of shock and bleeding from the mouth, ears, and nose are common with severe head trauma.  Unequal pupil size, seizures, changes in mentation, vomiting, and slow, shallow breathing can also accompany head trauma.

Some signs of brain injury are more subtle, though.  Concussions are particularly difficult to diagnose because our pets can’t tell us if they have a headache or if they know what day it is.  Pets with concussions might seem groggy and have a hard time staying awake, or they may show behavior changes like uncharacteristic aggression.

Diagnosis of brain injuries in dogs can be difficult if there are no specific head injuries or if trauma was not witnessed. Taking a plain x-ray is often unrewarding unless damage to the skull or neck is found.  CT scans are the diagnostic test of choice for head trauma victims, but this test is not always available.

Treatment of brain injuries will vary depending on the type and severity.  Most dogs will need to be hospitalized for treatments that will center on reducing swelling in the brain, treating shock if present, and providing adequate oxygen to pets who may not be breathing as well as they should.  Anticonvulsants will be administered if seizures are present, and other nursing care will be provided around the clock, including feeding (either by mouth or by a feeding tube). Needless to say, all of this is costly, but can be covered by pet insurance.

Of course, the prognosis is variable depending on the extent and severity of the brain injury.  Individual patients respond differently to injuries, as well, so even dogs with severe brain injuries may be able to overcome their problems with time. 

Getting a head start on brain injuries is key; if you suspect that your pet has sustained head trauma, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Get your little linebacker straight to the vet’s office to get checked out so that he or she can get back in the game!

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Pippa ElliottGuest Blogger of Petplan
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