What can we learn from migraine alert dogs?

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. 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.

Update – Check out results from our own survey of over 1,000 community members! Could You Be Getting A Migraine? Ask Your Dog

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Comments

View Comments (51)
  • LolaMarigolda
    2 years ago

    I’m on my 4th migraine alert SD.

  • LolaMarigolda
    2 years ago

    Neuro alerts (seizure, migraine, syncope) can not be taught; the dog is born with the ability. A University of Florida study (96-04ish) concluded that approximately 15% of dogs can do it. They are still haven’t figured out exactly what the dogs are sensing; some think it is scent, some electrical, and some think it is a combination of things.

    There are some that have claimed they have used the same scent protocols used for narcotics detection, but have refused to allow a professional to test the dog (at no cost to the handler).

    Yes, I train my own; I have a background in dog training. Only 1 out of 100 dogs has what it takes to be a SD. My first started alerting soon after I brought him home, but it took several months where I logged everything before I saw the pattern. My current, along with her brother, were bred and whelped by myself, both started early; I logged it and used my then current SD to confirm they were alerting. During that time, they were also alerting to my now ex kennel partner. Once they were @ 12 weeks, I started shaping the alert from noisy and licking up my nostril to pawing; she will revert back to her tongue up my nose if I don’t acknowledge her immediately. In addition to alerting @ 45 minutes before I get an aura (giving me a total of about an hour before the pain starts), she does an additional dozen or so tasks.

  • Nicci
    2 years ago

    How did you acquire your dogs? Did you train them yourself? My dog taught herself to alert and she passed away almost 2 months ago. Her help was invaluable and now without her, I’m less capable. I realize now also altering behaviors I never caught when she was alive… like only waking me up in the morning sometimes and getting clingy in bed.

  • Ter-i
    2 years ago

    I have west-highland terrier (male) dog, he wants me to take him out or give him food when it is time, my migraine is no excuse :). My tortoise seems more empathetic.

  • Misty
    4 years ago

    My dog isn’t registered as a service dog, nor for the last two weekends, we have noticed about 3-6 hours before I have a migraine, my dog has a tendency to stay right beside me and wont let me out of his sight. It didn’t dawn on me until last night he may have the natural ability to sense them. I’m going to start paying closer attention to his actions. Most of the time though, the painful part of the migraine happens while I’m sleeping.

  • Nicci
    2 years ago

    I get the pain asleep, too. My golden would cling in bed. I wake up with headaches because of laying down and increased pressure in my head. Try sleeping on a wedge. Good luck with your dog alerting… he surely is! Pay close attention as you said!

  • Kindy
    5 years ago

    I’m usually able to recognize warning signs when I’m within an hour or two of a migraine (phantom smells are my most reliable signal), but two days ago I suffered the worst migraine I’ve had in years, including a kaleidoscope-like aura, which I have never experienced before in my 26 year of suffering migraines. Two days before the migraine set in, my chihuahua/puggle mix began acting very strange – she was aloof and skittish when she is normally playful 24 hours a day. She would sit and stare at me, but nothing I did seemed to satisfy her (usually she stares when she wants to play or go outside, but she wasn’t interested in either). I’ve only had her for six months, so this is the first time she saw me with a terrible migraine. The morning after the migraine ended, she was back to her old self. Is there any way I can get her registered as an alert dog for myself?

  • Kaitlyn
    5 years ago

    HI,
    I’m wondering if anyone knows where you can get these dogs, as I have debilitating migraines that leave me unable to carry out daily tasks. I have tried many medications and none have helped. I truly feel like this is my only option.

  • Ingurita
    6 years ago

    Hi,

    I finally found information about this here, I’ve been looking into it for a long time. My dog can detect my migraines and clusters (I’ve both chronic migraine with aura and cluster headaches). He gets way too anxious and start crying even before I have the auras, food cravings, etc. But what I want to know is where can I contact the trainers who have these dogs there in America (I live in Ireland in here there are none). The reason for it it’s because I believe my dog isn’t happy. His level of anxiety increased way too much in order to help me somehow, he won’t leave my side, he will open the doors for me, and when I can no more and need to lay down he will stay with me no matter what. But he will not drink water, eat, anything and he only relaxes when my Fiancé comes back home and he is able to help me. He’ll run to him and push him to come to me. I’ve trained many dogs along my life as a way of living, but I’ve never experienced this, and I’d love to know how can I help him to stay calm and assure him I’ll be ok. You can only see him 100 % calm when he is beside me and somebody is at home with me too and finally he falls asleep, start eating, drinking water and stops asking for help. Even then, he is very warm hearted and will help me going down the stairs waiting for me and open up the bathroom door for me. Another thing he does is biting softly and licking the tip of my fingers when they get too cold and even blue, and amazingly my blood starts running again in fingers.

  • Ingurita
    6 years ago

    Thank you Dr Marcus, I’ll write to them as I do want to help him. He’s been on prozac when I was really bad (after a stroke like attack) and no medicines were working for me. He started chewing his nails till they bled and our Vet suggested prozac until I got better (Topamax took its time but it helped me at the end) so thanks to God he is prozac free now and not going extreme anymore, but it was distressing to see him suffering because of me, and I know it is because of me, because when I’m ok, he is just a normal dog. Sometimes I feel really guilty, Migraine and Clusters are already a burden for me and thinking my best friend, the one who doesn’t care if I can’t go out at night or I if look terrible is suffering, hurts. Thank you very very much.

  • Dr Marcus author
    6 years ago

    Ingurita — you may want to get in touch with Medical Detection Dogs (http://medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk/) in the UK. They are really the experts on dogs alerting their owners to disease. It sounds like your dog is extremely tuned into you and has really taken responsibility for your care and well-being. The folks at Medical Detection Dogs can probably offer good tips to help reduce distress your dog may be experiencing. They may also help you recognize whether your dog is stressed (e.g., yawning, panting, or showing other common doggie stress reactions) or is just being vigilant. Good luck and please keep me posted.

  • Not Carly Simon
    6 years ago

    I think my cats actually try to alert me when I’m getting a migraine. One cat has been going thorough stages when he will not leave me alone and follows me around the house while meowing frantically. I’ve started to notice that those episodes correspond to prodrome symptoms like craving chocolate and being tired. Today, another of my cats refused to leave me alone. She followed me around the room meowing and jumped in my lap whenever I sat down. Well, about 30 minutes later, I started to see wavy lines and the first cat ran in and sat on me.

    I really think they’re trying to warn me about my headaches. The meow they’re doing is extremely frantic, even worse than the, “My food bowl is empty,” meow. They’re also really insistent on sitting on me and purring really loudly. Some recent studies have shown that tones of a cat’s purr actually stimulate feelings of relaxation and possibly even stimulate healing in people and animals. I wonder if my cats are trying to do that for me.

  • Kristen Newman
    7 years ago

    I have one

  • Janie Brooks
    7 years ago

    My Moki is a pitbull/boxer mix and he can detect my migraines. He tends to hover around me and try to climb on the couch to comfort me, knowing he’s not suppose to be on the furniture.

  • Christina Imbronone- Rhodes
    7 years ago

    I just got a shih tzu puppy (Rhodie) this year (feb 2012). I suffer with migraines on a daily basis. I thought it was just a coincidence that every time I had headache Rhodie will sit on my console in my car and just stare at me and not move. I call it the headache stare, LOL Since I have had him longer it has seemed that he is now starting to alert me sooner. He will come into the kitchen out of the blue and stop and stare and within 20-30 min I will get a migraine. I was telling people about it but thought it was just my imagination before googling it to you. I guess I should start taking meds when I get the stare! LOL

  • Val Frost and Bubbles
    6 years ago

    Dear Christina – Rhodie is “right on target”. It’s not your imagination. Trust me. I have had CMD for over 50 years. I also have Degenerative Disc Disease in lumbar spine and hips, plus Macular Degeneration in both eyes. My 157-pound beautiful Newfoundland girl (medical Service Dog) BUBBLES,is my life – along with my 4 cats. Bubbles will stare at me without blinking seconds before a major migraine will hit. She “mirrors” my walking speed, depending, and if I experience an Ocular Migraine Stroke and my visual field goes totally black, she senses the attack and pulls me to safety/home, whichever is closest. Whenever I have to lie down due to severe pain, for either condition, my dog is beside my bed and my 4 cats on on it with me, when I awaken. They are my therapy clinic and they give me an incredible quality of life to be able to endure despite the pain each and every day. God bless our animals. Val and Bubbles – (Moderator’s note: For your privacy and security, please do not post personal contact information.)

  • Tere Carr
    7 years ago

    Oh my gosh. This is really interesting.

  • Migraine.com
    7 years ago

    Hi Christina, We actually did a study on dogs & migraines with our community… the results (which we’ll be sharing very soon) are pretty interesting! Stay tuned 🙂

  • Becky Orlando
    7 years ago

    Awww very cool. Dogs are awesome! Now if we cud just find a cure for the migraines! Any updates on treatment or prevention on ur end?

  • Kerry Dixon
    7 years ago

    That is super cool…I need a dog who senses when I am going to binge on oreos. I then need that dog to attack me and kick my ass so I have to to the dr instead of the pantry. That would be helpful. Glad you found a way to catch the headaches before they catch you!

  • Sandie Rose
    7 years ago

    My dog alerts to my migraines up to a half hour before they hit. This has become especially reassurring to me as sometimes my migraines bring on dizzy spells or blackouts. I’ve never had much luck with preventative meds.
    Kami was originally trained to be a therapy dog. We volunteer together every week. But now he is also my medical alert service dog. He is truely a blessing.

  • Kaylee Amanda Sawyer
    7 years ago

    So freakin cool. I need a migraine alert dog.

  • Holly Marie Johnson
    7 years ago

    I have a dog who alerts me to oncoming migraines. He’s my second. I simply lucked out both times; my previous Gunnar was a pound puppy & my current Gunner (the similar name is purely coincidental) was “pre-owned” as well. Neither dog was trained to alert.

    Gunner’s alert signal is very similar to Gunnar’s, though a bit more subtle: He becomes very subdued, does a low, soft whine, taps my arm with his paw and/or nose-bumps my chin. If I bend down to his level, he sniffs my eye or ear on the side where the migraine will hit. Gunner has alerted as early as 40 minutes before the migraine hits; Gunnar usually alerted me about twenty minutes in advance.

  • Sherry Lindsey
    7 years ago

    I have two dogs that alert to my migraines and a third that is starting to alert. I take the oldest (12 yrs old now) with me as my medical alert service dog. My auras cause sudden visual disturbances that basically leave me blind. Flair alerts 20-30 mintues before the aura starts and if I pay attention to her and take my meds, I can keep the aura from happening. I still get a headache but not nearly as bad. I wish she were more obvious with her alert. She has been alerting for the past 6 yrs. She refuses to settle and will not obey sit or down commands when alerting although she is a highly trained and titled agility and obedience dog. As soon as she sees me take my meds, she settles immediately usually going to sleep at my feet. She is now also alerting to the migraines of two of my coworkers although not nearly as early as she alerts for me. I did go to the survey and fill it out. Thanks for all you are doing.

  • Kimberly Neis Coates
    7 years ago

    My email is kimberlyneis@yahoo.com also if you cannot reach me through Facebook – I wanted to know how to get my dog approved as a medical service dog because he alerts me of my migraines.

  • Kimberly Neis Coates
    7 years ago

    How do you get your dog approved as a migraine assistance dog so you can prove it is medically necessary to have them around? Do they require training for this? What if your dog already naturally does this for you?

  • Grace Illiterati
    7 years ago

    I have a migraine alert dog. I had gotten her as a pet when she was only a few weeks old, but by the time she was six months old, she was predicting my migraines before they arrived, alerting me and keeping at me until I acknowlege her and take my medication, so I was able to take my meds in time to at least minimize the pain. I had lost jobs because of my migraines before my service dog came into my life.

    She has made living a WHOLE lot easier, and I truly believe she was Heaven-sent. I don’t get auras or any kind of “two minute warning”, as it were, to give me a heads up without her help.

  • Jessica Hooten Thomas
    7 years ago

    I have a dog who knows when my pain is going to intensify. I have chronic migraines and chronic cluster headaches so the pain never really ends just gets more painful and that my dog recognizes and will start climbing on me and licking my hands.

  • Dawn A Marcus
    7 years ago

    Would love to hear more!

  • Dr Marcus author
    7 years ago

    Olgita — hoping to put together a collection of folks who have recognized migraine alerting in their dogs as an educational piece for doctors. Would love to hear more details about what your dogs do.

  • Dr Marcus author
    7 years ago

    Olgita — love to hear more!

  • Olgita
    7 years ago

    I Have a two year old Westie that alerts me before I get a Migraine. He also alerts me before I get an aura.

  • Jody Grantinetti
    7 years ago

    I am dog sitting a blue healer for a friend who had a stroke. Approximatley the last 24hrs she has been right at my side more than normal, even on my lap! Finally figured it out! Once my migraine hit she settled down. Only thing I can think of is she can sense them coming on, not sure if I will want to let her go home to him when he returns now. It would be nice to have that notice on a regular basis.

  • Stephanie Suitter
    8 years ago

    My dog Sherman can predict my migrines with in a half an hour. He is in training as an official migraine alert dog, he starts out very subtle but if I ignore him he will scratch at my feet until I pay attention to what he is trying to tell me. He hasn’t missed a Migraine yet!

  • Dawn A Marcus
    7 years ago

    Would love to hear more about Sherman. Let me know if I can send you some questions.

  • Marlene Johnson Ravey
    8 years ago

    Gabbie, my Westie, ALWAYS knows when I’m going to have a migraine. She becomes frantic about licking my right eye, and the right side of my face. It is actually quite soothing. She has never been wrong yet, and she’s nine years old.

  • Laurie Ransonette Anderson
    8 years ago

    Amazing!

  • Ray Gwyn Smith
    8 years ago

    Shea is a migraine alert dog, though the patch on her assistance dog vest says “Medical Alert Dog” because so many people believe migraine is simply a bad headache. That you could pop a couple of Exedrine instead of taking a dog with you everywhere. This article explains what Shea does.

  • Ray Gwyn Smith
    7 years ago

    Dawn A Marcus . Hi Dawn. Did you send me a message and then we talked about Shea, my migraine alert dog? I know someone phoned me about her. If it wasn’t you and you are still interested let me know. I’d love to tell you our story. Shea changed my life. 831-425-1146

  • Kaylee Amanda Sawyer
    7 years ago

    That is awesome. I am considering a migraine alert dog, my migraines are debilitating and it is impossible for me to get to them before they get bad. I find myself only holding back because of the backlash I feel from those kind of people who would say things like, it’s just a migraine, that’s not a disability. Thanks for the article!

  • Dawn A Marcus
    7 years ago

    Sent you a Facebook message. Would love to hear more details. Am hoping to catalogue what these incredible dogs do into a short piece for a headache journal to educate doctors about this important skill.

  • Dr Marcus author
    8 years ago

    BinxsMum — Fascinating! I’d love to hear more about how Binx let’s you know a migraine’s about to start.

  • BinxsMum
    8 years ago

    I have a SDiT. She’s a 2yr old border collie. I had a border collie before that as well. I don’t know if it’s trainable, I think it’s instinctual – you have to have THAT bond with the dog – but it makes a difference for me. Greatly, because I can’t take the abortives, any of them, but if I can still take an Advil at first I can keep the pain moderate and maybe make it last only a few hours until I really get knocked on my ass a day or two later when I either don’t pay attention to Binx or it hits in my sleep.

  • Dr Marcus author
    8 years ago

    Jamie — you’ll have to stay on the look out for my new book, A Doctor’s Guide to Dog Therapy and Healing: The Power of Wagging Tails due to be released in July. It’s a collection of scientific studies proving dogs are good for your health, stories from folks across the country who have had similar experiences yours, and tips on learning to unleash the healing power in your dog!

  • Jamie
    8 years ago

    Very intriguing! I had to move back in with my parents, after the car accident I had over 2 years ago that left me with debilitating migraines. They have 2 dogs, but 1 of them and I grew a special bond. Her name is Shadow, and she definitely became my little shadow. She stayed by my side through all the pain and rough times. I have since moved away, but still stay return and stay with my parents for a week every month or so to visit doctors; and we get right back into our routine. Dogs truly do have a sense for what we need. I’m interested to find out more about this topic!

  • Dr Marcus author
    8 years ago

    Ellen — if you’re interested in better understanding how our dogs think and learn, check out the review of books by animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell this week and the next 3 weeks at http://www.FitAsFido.com. If you leave a comment after the blog that reviews a book, you’ll be eligible to get a free copy of that book! There are still a couple days to post a comment for this Wednesday’s review on the book, The Other End of the Leash. Check it out!

    Also, be sure to check back here and let me know if you’ve had success learning your prodrome signals — that your dog clearly already knows!

  • Ellen Schnakenberg
    8 years ago

    Wow, this is really fabulous! Our canine pals to the rescue yet again. It never occurred to me to actually train a dog to do this…

    The language of dogs is body language. They are experts in it. My dog knows when I’m Migraining and won’t leave me. So does my cat. Sometimes, like my family, they can guess before I’ve figured it out that I’m headed for trouble. I never am alert enough to figure out that’s what they’re doing until it’s too late. There’s no training there though, no alerts like my friend the Sheriff’s dog. Just the love of a dog/cat for her person.

    I’ll have to start paying more attention…

  • Dr Marcus author
    8 years ago

    Teri — let me know if any of your readers have used or know someone with a migraine alert dog. I’m trying to collect more information and hopefully put together something to educate doctors about this topic.

  • Teri-Robert
    8 years ago

    This is great! Thanks, Dr. Marcus.

  • Stormlaughter
    8 years ago

    Great article and I’m going to watch for updates.

    I’m retired on disability pension from Meniere’s Syndrome and migraine. A service animal who could spot impending attacks would be a Godsend for me.

    I am SOLD on the value of non-drug therapies to go along with medical treatment. Complementary therapies have “filled in the holes” between pharmaceutical drugs, the attack, and relief. The two approaches, used together, have given me relief that’s impressive to my doctors. They are all on-board with what I’m doing – wouldn’t consider treatments that my doctors didn’t approve of ahead of time.

    Imagining the increase in function I could gain by polling a service animal beforehand is exciting. I could gain function! I wouldn’t have to automatically say “no” to an activity if, between Fido and me, we could foresee no problems. Wouldn’t be fool-proof but man, what an improvement it might be! Attacks are extremely stressful and for me, honestly, traumatic when the two occur simultaneously. Having a trained animal to help me would reduce stress noticeably, I believe.

    Thanks for a great article and I’m on the lookout for updates!

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