Have you ever awakened to your dog, say, licking your face and then pacing repeatedly around your bed? If that happens to be unusual behavior for your pet, it may be something else: an early warning that you’re getting a migraine.
Yes, your dog is likely better equipped to detect migraine onset than you are. Thanks to their 220 million scent receptors (humans have just 5 million), dogs can detect odors undetectable to humans. And this gives them the ability to “sniff out” a number of potential health issues, including migraine.
In a study reported in Psychology Today, dog-owners who also get migraines were asked if their dogs behaved any differently before or during the owners’ migraine episodes. Over half of the 1027 subjects said they’d noticed such a change in their pet. Nearly 60% noted that “their dog had alerted them to the onset of a headache — usually an hour or two in advance."
Dogs, in fact, can sense the earliest stage of a migraine episode, known as prodrome. As many as 80% of people with migraines experience prodrome, which can develop as early as 48 hours before your actual headache begins. Pre-migraine, as gradual changes begin within your central nervous system, prodrome can manifest in a variety of different ways, from excessive yawning and food cravings to mood changes, tiredness, and difficulty concentrating.
In general, most dogs — because of their natural bond with their “person” — notice such prodromal symptoms. But they may not necessarily react to them.
Specially trained migraine alert dogs do, however. Through their sense of smell, they detect changes in their owner’s body chemistry and take immediate action if they think something is “off.” This includes alerting the owner to prodromal symptoms by “nudging, licking, circling, or staring intently,” says The Migraine Relief Center.
Many people don’t realize a migraine is on the way until migraine aura, or head pain itself, begin…and by then, it’s often too late to stop it. But with an early warning from a migraine alert dog, they’re able to start treatment as quickly as possible — to relieve, maybe even avert, their migraine episode.
A migraine alert dog is a service animal with a degree of training not equaled by therapy dogs or emotional support pets. Service animals (which are always dogs) are adaptive and individually trained to aid people who are, or may regularly be, debilitated. Service dogs are generally permitted for people who experience chronic migraine (15 or more days a month).
Like seizure-alert or seeing-eye dogs that receive very specialized training, your migraine alert dog’s behavior and actions are tailored to your specific needs. They learn what physical and psychological behaviors are normal or not normal for you. This helps them readily notice signs, often subtle, that you’re about to have a migraine.
Your service dog can also be trained to help you if your migraine is already underway – for example, fetch your phone if you’re alone experiencing dizziness, aura, extreme head pain, or other complications of your migraine, and need to reach help.
A service dog is automatically permitted in places that otherwise might not allow pets, and can help you walk, communicate, get to a safe place, or find assistance during a migraine episode, according to the US Service Animals organization. The dog knows “exactly how to handle the situation so you can save time and get the proper care.” It can also provide loving support as you recover. (Watch the video for more tasks a service dog can assist with.)
If you’re interested in obtaining a service dog or training your pet to be a migraine alert dog, consult a certified dog trainer or service dog organization.
A migraine service dog can alert you to impending head pain, but only a medical professional experienced at treating migraine can help you manage your symptoms and find the relief you need. If you’ve explored a number of treatment options without success, the time may be right for you to consider Mable, a DNA-based approach to your treatment that can deliver better migraine care faster. Take our quiz to see if it’s a good fit for you.