Ask the Vet: Tackling pet concussions

Ask the Vet: Tackling pet concussions

Symptoms of a concussion can be as subtle as mild lethargy to as severe as coma.

By Matthew Kearns, DVM

There is so much attention recently on the effect of concussions on the human brain. Starting with the studies run through the NFL, we parents are now looking at the risks and long-term effects of concussions on children that play contact sports. My son Matty is only in the ninth grade and before he can participate in lacrosse this spring, he has to take a test that evaluates his brain function. If, during the season, he sustains a head injury, he will retake the test to see if he did receive any brain injuries that may require he sit out for a while.

We don’t have specific tests for dogs or cats, but there are ways to evaluate your pet for a possible brain injury. Starting the process of evaluating our pets for concussions requires we, as owners, know what the most common causes of brain trauma and injuries are. These include brain injuries from vehicular accidents and all sorts of blunt trauma to the head like getting hit with a baseball or baseball bat/blunt instrument, a fall from a porch or deck, getting kicked by an animal or running into something like a tree or wall. Smaller dogs can get these injuries falling from their owners arms, rough housing with larger dogs or being attacked by larger dogs (where the smaller dog is picked up and shaken). 

The initial injury comes from a decrease in the blood flow to the brain secondary to brain edema (swelling) or bleeding. Unfortunately, this increase in pressure leads to a secondary increase in arterial blood flow/pressure to the brain and decreased venous blood drainage. This combination of initial swelling after trauma and the body’s response to the increased pressure is what leads to cell death and long-term effects. 

Symptoms can be as subtle as mild lethargy to as severe as coma. More subtle symptoms are squinting, reluctance to move, decreased appetite and sleeping more. Your veterinarian may be able to pick up additional symptoms related to pupil size, reactions to stimuli (light, sound), systemic blood pressure, heart rate and temperature.

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, either your veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian can also give you an idea of prognosis of recovery and possible long-term complications.

Head injuries need to be seen immediately. If your pet is very lethargic or comatose, make sure to be careful moving your pet. Also try to keep your pet’s head above the rest of its body to improve drainage. More severe cases of head trauma require hospitalization, intravenous fluid therapy, supplemental oxygen and medications to regulate blood pressure and reduce intracranial edema.

In conclusion, if a head injury occurs, please monitor your pet closely or, better yet, have it evaluated by your veterinarian ASAP.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine.