Dogs Detect Cluster Headaches in Human

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By Sophia Yin, DVM, MS

1966-2014 R.I.P.

Last week when lecturing at a seminar with Sarah Kalnajs, I watched an interesting video that Sarah showed. When her friend who had a history of cluster headaches was visiting her, Sarah’s dogs performed an unusual behavior. Typically they would hang back instead of interacting with the visitor but in this case they climbed onto his lap and kept licking his face, especially in the area of his right eye. At the time her friend did not have a headache but 10 minutes later he felt one coming on. As it was starting to occur, he warned that the dogs might start to become aggressive to him. His warning was based on a past dog he had owned. He’d owned the dog for at least a year prior to the start of his cluster headaches and the dog was a well-loved part of the family. Once he started having the headaches, the dog’s behavior changed. Just prior to the headaches, the dog would avoid him. But when the headaches occurred, the dog would become aggressive. As a result he had to rehome the dog with someone who didn’t have this type of medical condition.

Sarah’s dogs did not become aggressive to the visitor, they did however get more excited and lick the right eye, the area from which the headaches emanated, more vigorously.

Given that dogs have 20x more olfactory receptors than humans, it’s not surprising that they would pick up scents emanating from humans that we humans are completely unaware exist.

If any of you readers have first hand experience with such detection, please chime in. What were they detecting? And did you or others end up using the dog as a detection dog?


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19 responses to “Dogs Detect Cluster Headaches in Human

  1. When my husband had abdominal surgeries he came home with full length ‘open’ wounds that needed to be packed and we had a wound RN come by several times a week.
    His dog would focus on a particular spot on his bandaging (heavy surgical pad type) breathing/sniffing deeply. When we responded to her behavior she would stop.
    Invariably there was an infected spot where she was indicating. We began to put a marker spot and the nurse would check there first. Sometimes not an obvious spot, but always something there on investigation. She was completely reliable on this.
    Now we always investigate if she is sniffing another of our dogs and usually find something. On ourselves we will go recleanse a wound we have if she sniffs the bandaging, just in case.
    She seems to have added this detection to her job description. My husband had done other scent/indication work with this dog before his illness, and now continues to work with her in that area..

  2. Susan:

    That’s really interesting. I guess it’s good he had done some scent work with her earlier! Thanks for sharing. What is her personality. Is she very attuned to people and seeks attention a lot from them? Soft or sensitive personality? Or does she just love to sniff things?


  3. I have a Parson Russell Terrier that likes to lick my labrador’s ears. But last summer, he became obsessed with it, and I was always telling him to stop, but he wouldn’t. I brought ma labrador to the vet, and she had quite a severe infection in both her ears, although she showed no sign of disconfort. I myself had “sniffed” the ears prior to bringing her to the vet, but had not detected any abnormal smell. When the treatment was over and ma lab had a clean bill of health, the licking resumed to what it used to be, a few minutes a day.

  4. My Doberman, Elka, has taken it upon herself to be my Migraine Dog.

    I’m part of the percentage of migraine sufferers who have a distinct “aura phase”, before I ever have any pain at all from the headache. If I take painkillers during this phase, my migraine will be severely diminished, if not entirely mitigated. Elka knows somehow to alert me during this stage. It’s an unpolished, spontaneous (i.e., I didn’t teach it) behavior at this point: she’ll stare at me, whine, not leave me alone. Unfortunately, this sort of behavior can be par for the course in everyday life, but I’ve been working on listening to the dog more, and trying to discern the causes of her whines. And sometimes, those whines mean I’m headed for Headache Land pretty quickly. You can bet I reward her for that!

    (I wrote about it a little bit on my blog here, )

    1. As a migraine & cluster migraine sufferer, Im so encouraged by this! Thank you for sharing. Will check out your blog as well =)

  5. Sophia,
    My husbands dog is a very busy girl who loves to work. Normally a bit towards the ‘hard’ personality side, but very easy to train. She is a herding breed. She loves people because they toss her ball, but not much on snuggling or petting – too busy. She only asks for petting/attention late evening or early morning. She is normally off doing something, keeping track of where we are, but not hanging too close to us.
    When my husband was ill she altered her behavior. Never leaving his side, being deliberate and quiet around him, sleeping by him during the day, often with his hand on her back.
    She loves to sniff, her world is her nose, but this was focused like she does with her scent work.


  6. Had a really bad headache in a particularly waning morning. Had to go to work, anyway, ignoring it.
    Eventually, it turned into a migraine and I had to leave. I went straight into bed and my dog climbs on top of me, he begins to lick my face, but not in the usual areas, but where the pain was most great.
    I could actually feel the pain dissipating.
    Curious, I moved my head to the side and he continued licking in the spots where it hurt the most.
    He did not stop until most of the pain was gone. All that was left was a dull ache, but nothing as extreme as the nausea-inducing brand.

  7. One day I had aaboit a 3 inch superficial cut on my leg and it stung. I can’t remember how it got there. One day when visiting a friend of mine the dog kept licking the wound for at least ten minutes. The next day the sting was gone and the cut was almost gone! So I did some research and found out that there is a chemical in their saliva (cats as well) that helps to heal cuts, wounds etc.

  8. I suffer from cluster headaches. My cluster headaches are episodic they come in cycles 3 times a year generally around the same date. Several years ago we adopted a chihuahua/terrier mix. Not long after we got her she stared one day she started obsessively licking my right eye, even when we placed her in a different room for a while to give my eye a break she would bark and scratch on the door frantically trying to get back to me to continue licking. Later that evening I went into a cluster cycle. She has continued to do this hours before every cluster headache. She now sleeps on my pillow at night and will wake me licking my eye just before an attack comes on. During the attacks she sits a few feet away and watches, when they are over she comes and sits in my lap.

  9. I noticed couple years ago having headaches and remember my dog (bull terrier mix ) sniffing my face and would lick a certain spot continuously then move on to different areas of my forehead and the headache would instantly go away. To this day when I have headaches my dog takes it away

    1. I wonder how they heal them like that? Is it the circulation, or them relaxing us…Id love to understand how this makes migraines/headaches go away. What beautiful animals to help us like this.

  10. My 75 pound German shepherd jumped in my lap and started licking my forehead. I went to sleep and then woke up with vertigo. He sensed it before it happened.

    1. That is soo beautiful.
      Dr Yin,
      Are certain breeds more in tune with indicating ailments without being taught?

      Thank you!

  11. My dog started smelling my breath and licking me in the face during a migraine today. Then he layed on top of me making me lay down. How do they know and should I get more training for him ? I sent him to obedience school and they told me he should be a therapy dog.

    1. Thee are many possible reasons for this behavior. In some cases we know, in others not so much. Keep in mind that there is a difference between a service dog, which he could be as he’s providing a medical service for you, and a therapy dog. While the training is expensive, I would look into it if you are a chronic migraine sufferer.

  12. I suffer from chronic migraines,and fibromyalgia and Degradation disc disease,and I am the proud owner of 5 small dogs, they each have there own personality, the oldest who is 10 Liebe she is a pug land breed and very smart , when I’m in pain she goes to that area in my body and licks , especially my migraines they are always in my right eye and she will lick that part of my face to help with my pain and I do feel a little better afterwards.the other dogs which are a pug, 2 small poodle breeds and a corgi, will all lay around my body on my bed they have to lay so they are touching me , I think they consider me part of their pack 🙂 They are great pets to have if you have chronic health problems they help to ease the pain.

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