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Do cats get headaches?

Updated on July 11, 2021
Written by
Joel
6 sources cited
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Cats get headaches, too. Unfortunately, they can't really communicate this pain, so it's hard to tell when it happens. Cats can't talk and lack the ability to express themselves through nonverbal cues. However, there are ways to recognize this pain and help them through it.

Here's what you need to know about cat headaches.

Do cats get headaches? 3

What causes a headache in cats? 

There are a lot of things that trigger head pain in cats, dogs, and other animals. The list below focuses on cats, but these may apply to other pets, too.

Head trauma

This occurs when a cat is hit in the head with a blunt or pointed object or when they are intentionally or mistakenly hit or stepped on in the head. This can happen when the pet is involved in an accident or physical altercation with another animal. It may also occur if a cat unintentionally falls from a great height or down a set of stairs. 

Upper respiratory infections

Upper respiratory infections are usually accompanied by continuous coughing and sneezing, which irritate the brain membrane. This can cause a mild or significant headache.

Unlike other possible causes of cat headaches, which lack definite outward signs, upper respiratory conditions have several different symptoms. These may include.

  • Swelling of the mucous membranes around the eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Clear or colored discharge from the nose or eyes

Heat exhaustion

If you've ever felt the burning heat of an unforgiving summer sun, you know it can be overwhelming. It’s more or less the same for your cat. Heat exhaustion usually causes severe headaches for humans and cats alike. It is an indicator of heatstroke, which can be fatal if left untreated.

Note: If you believe your cat's headache is from heat exhaustion, remove them from the hot environment. Dampen their fur with lukewarm water the water must not be iced or icy; it could cause them to go into shock). You could also expose them to an environment with a sufficient flow of room-temperature air (such as that from a fan).

Dehydration

Cats also get headaches from dehydration. It usually occurs when your cat is not drinking enough water or losing too much of it. It may also occur as a result of diarrhea and vomiting.

Brain disease

Persistent cat headaches may be a sign of brain disease. Conditions like brain tumors and encephalitis affect blood vessels, brain membranes, and nerves, leading to pain.

Recognizing cat headaches

Unlike humans, cats cannot express or verbalize their pain. They go to extreme lengths to hide any sign of discomfort. This is thought to be an instinctive behavioral strategy aimed at protecting them from predators or other cats.

That said, there are still several subtle signs to look out for, as discussed below.

Hiding and self-isolation

Cats will hide whenever they are unwell, even from their owners. The pet will often seek a secluded place to find comfort. It will do so by hiding where it can’t be seen or where no one can reach.

Note: some cats naturally prefer to be by themselves for most of the day, so self-isolation may not always mean that they are unwell.

Reduced appetite

The pain that comes with migraines will diminish your cat's appetite. A reduced desire or total unwillingness to eat is usually a significant indicator that something is not right.

Touch sensitivity

If your cat suddenly seems wary of your touch, it may be suffering a headache. Most animals do not like to be touched when they're in pain, and cats are no exception.

Note: This behavior may not necessarily be a sign your cat has a headache, especially if it’s the only symptom you see. House cats love to snuggle, especially if they've been properly socialized. However, most will isolate themselves from time to time.

Collars

Collars that fit too tightly around your cat's neck can cause muscle strain. Collars may also latch on to furniture or other objects, leading to head trauma, resulting in a headache.

Do cats get headaches? 4

Restlessness

Not all cats respond to pain by hiding. Some will fidget, pace, and vocalize their discomfort. This behavior can be a sign of distress or pain caused by a headache.

Diagnosing cat headaches

There are two types of headaches in humans: primary headaches and secondary headaches.

Primary headaches are benign or harmless. The most common primary headaches are cluster headaches, migraines, and tension headache. Meanwhile, secondary headaches dangerous because injuries and diseases cause them.

There is no headache classification for cats because primary headaches are difficult to detect. However, cats with underlying health issues do experience headaches.

Many of the signs that would indicate headaches in cats have other possible causes, so it is essential to discuss your observations with your veterinarian.

Let them know when you first noticed the signs and whether your pet was involved in an accident or altercation. The doctor will combine your report with their test results and observations to develop a conclusive diagnosis.

Treatment options for cat headaches

Chiropractic therapy

This is one of the most straightforward ways to manage a headache, provided that it is caused by vertebral issues. Human trials of spinal manipulation for migraines and tension headaches have provided success rates of up to 90%. There is evidence that the technique is just as effective for cats. If the cat has experienced physical trauma, chiropractic treatment can give him or her quick relief.

Dentistry

This will be necessary if your cat's headache results from dental problems, like tooth pain, cavities, or gum infections. Addressing these problems should eliminate the pain.

Head trauma therapy

If your cat suffered a physical blow to the head, it would need trauma therapy. The specific treatment will depend on the severity of your cat's injury. In most situations, the first thing your vet will do is try to stabilize your cat by administering IV fluids and oxygen.

They may also sedate the pet, depending on its condition and perceived level of distress. If the skull has suffered a fracture, the cat will likely undergo surgery to have the problem addressed. Besides these treatments, the doctor may administer treatment for brain swelling. These drugs are designed to drain fluid out of the brain tissue to minimize swelling. Your pet will need to be closely monitored throughout the treatments.

Head trauma is a severe injury, so your cat's condition can quickly change from one moment to the next. This means you will probably need to leave your cat at the hospital for at least a day, so they can monitor their condition until the swelling has receded.

Resources

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  1. Bittel, Ella. (20 Dec 2013). “Understanding and diagnosing headache in animals.
  2. Marsden, Steve, et al. “Veterinary Chiropractic Care.” VCA Hospitals.
  3. Opperman, Emma. (2014). “Head trauma in the feline patient – an update. Veterinary Nursing Journal, 29:6, 194-197, DOI: 10.1111/vnj.12147.
  4. Pet Pain - Why Animals Hide It and What You Can Do to Help.” Grand Valley Animal Hospital, 25 May 2021.
  5. Respiratory Infections.” 2018, June. Cornell Feline Control Center.
  6. The Complete Guide to Heatstroke in Cats and Dogs.” RSPCA Pet Insurance.
Joel
Content Contributor
Joel is a writer with a passion for the science of DNA and the power of its manipulation.
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