Traumatic Brain Injury

By: Julie Ducoté, DVM

TVMA Member
Dallas, TX.

Published July 2016

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) results when there is substantial trauma to the head. Dogs and cats can sustain injuries to the brain when they are hit by a car, attacked and bitten around the head by a larger animal or shaken by a larger animal or when they fall from a height, receive a gunshot wound or suffer blunt force trauma of some kind. Fortunately, the bony skull and the large amount of muscle mass that is normally present in dogs and cats provide (some) protection for the brain.

IV and Oxygen Support Stabilize Pets’ Conditions

Head trauma is a medical emergency. If any significant head trauma is witnessed, a veterinarian should examine your pet immediately. The consulting veterinarian will first evaluate breathing and cardiovascular function. Your veterinarian will administer intravenous fluids (IV)infusion of liquid substances directly into a vein to treat shock and stabilize blood pressure. Oxygen supplementation is often provided for the first few hours after a head injury.

Exams Determine Severity of TBI and Treatment Options

Once breathing and blood pressure are stable, the veterinarian will perform a careful neurological examination to assess for signs of TBI. Symptoms of TBI may include loss of consciousness, seizures, weakness in the legs or pinpoint pupils. If symptoms of TBI are identified, the veterinarian will usually administer medication to help control swelling of the brain and decrease intracranial pressure. Other medications may be administered to treat infections or to address pain, nausea or seizures. If clinical signs of TBI are present, the veterinarian will likely recommend admission to the hospital for close monitoring and intensive care. In patients with severe or worsening neurological symptoms, referral to a neurologist for a CT scan and further treatment will be recommended.

Recovery Depends on Age and Existing Health Conditions

Fortunately, many patients can recover after a serious TBI. Animals that are younger and those with less severe injuries have a better chance to make a full recovery. Some patients can have long-term neurological signs, such as seizures, that require ongoing treatment. In patients with more severe injuries who are significantly older or who have multiple pre-existing medical problems, recovery is less certain. Unfortunately, some patients with severe injuries or rapidly worsening neurological signs may die from their trauma despite treatment.

Julie Ducoté, DVM, is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine who lives in Dallas. Dr. Ducoté serves as the medical director at the Center for Veterinary Specialty + Emergency Care in Lewisville, Texas.