What can we learn from migraine alert dogs?
By Dr Marcus—January 13, 2011

Do other people often warn you that you’re going to get a migraine? Have you even noticed that your dog starts hovering nearby, looking to offer comfort you when you really feel just fine but then hours later a migraine hits? How many times have I heard my patients say, “My friends/family/coworkers can always tell when I’m going to get a migraine.” When asked how they know, I usually hear about changes in mood or energy level, frequent trips to the bathroom, and cravings. These pre-migraine characteristics are called the migraine prodrome. This prodrome is actually the first stage of a migraine.

Prodrome symptoms occur in about one in three migraine sufferers, with symptoms usually occurring about 12 to 24 hours before the painful part of the migraine. Common prodrome features include:

  • Irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Food cravings
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Neck pain
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Yawning
  • Frequent urination

Why is it important to understand your prodrome symptoms? Doctors have long known that migraines are easiest to treat when you catch them in their earliest stages and the prodrome is the very beginning of a migraine. Using effective non-drug therapies (like relaxation techniques, stress management, aerobic exercise) and sometimes medications during the prodrome can often prevent the painful part of a migraine from occurring.

This is where migraine alert dogs come in. We’re all familiar with seeing eye dogs who help people with severely impaired vision regain independence. Seeing eye dogs were the first service dogs (also called assistance dogs in the UK). Service dogs help people with a wide range of disabilities. They can open zippers, remove socks, open drawers and doors, visit and ATM machine and put cash on a counter, post mail, and much much more. Some service dogs work by monitoring people’s health conditions for changes, such as seizure alert dogs for people with epilepsy and dogs who detect when blood sugar levels are becoming abnormal in patients with diabetes. Although infrequently used, there are also migraine alert dogs. As the name implies, these dogs notify their owners when they sense a migraine is going to occur.

In case you’re wondering if this can really work, a friend of mine was being interviewed one day with a woman who was accompanied by her migraine alert dog. Part way through the interview, the dog gave his signal to the owner who dashed from the room to get her migraine therapy. Treatment administered, she returned to finish the interview. Afterward, she explained the dog’s job of sensing the earliest stages of her migraine. If she waited to treat her migraine when she could first feel the painful headache starting, it was usually too late to really be helpful and she be completely disabled. Thanks to her dog’s ability to catch her attacks early, her treatments were now effective for preventing incapacitating attacks.

So what can we learn from Fido? If our dogs can tune into us enough to recognize when something’s amiss, we should be able to do the same. Keep a daily diary for the next several weeks, noting when you experience what might be migraine prodrome symptoms and common migraine triggers and when a migraine occurs. You can use the Migraine Journal in the Migraine Tools here at Migraine.com. With this diary, the section called “Symptoms” refers to prodrome symptoms. After several weeks, analyze your diary for patterns to let you see what features predict your migraine and how much time you have between when you first get these symptoms and when the painful part of migraine begins. Be sure to monitor both triggers and prodrome symptoms since some “triggers” like eating chocolate may actually be a response to a prodrome symptom of having developed a food craving.

And if you’re lucky enough to know someone with a migraine alert dog, please let me know — I’m trying to collect more information about these special dogs and the folks they help.

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