Do Horses Get Headaches?

A headache (or cephalgia to give it it's medical name) is a pain anywhere in the head or neck region. The brain tissue itself is not sensitive to pain as it lacks pain receptors (hence why brain surgery can be done while the patient is fully conscious!), and are caused by a disturbance of the pain sensitive structures around the brain.

Headaches are somewhat a subjective topic. When they occur in people, doctors rely on the patients to describe and pinpoint the pain. From this information a treatment plan can be formed. This is where the problem exists in relation to horses ... they cannot tell us that their head hurts!

As horses are prey animals they have evolved to mask and hide any pain. The reason for this is that if they were to show that they are injured or in pain, the predators would spot them as being the weakest member of the group and single them out. By masking their pain they have a better chance of going un-noticed and their survival rate increases.

Horses can experience serious head ailments and show little or no signs of being uncomfortable or in pain until the lesions start interfering with bodily functions. An example of this would be rotten teeth and sinusitis, which for a human would cause alot of pain, but horses rarely show any signs of pain. It usually takes a physical symptom, such as no longer being able to chew or nasal discharge, to appear before we realise something is wrong.  

Size and location of the horse's brain

Meningitis (inflammation of the protective membranes of the brain) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) are exceptions to this rule. These ailments cause headaches in people and horses with these conditions become quiet and withdrawn and will stand with their head pressed against a wall. But these signs can also be considered behavioral changes due to damage of the brain rather than a reflections of head pain.

Anti-inflammatory drugs, such as bute, will relieve pain associated with meningitis and encephalitis but will also give relief to the damage in the brain cells.

The answer to my question? Well, without hooking up brain wave monitors to horses (and even then they might not have a headache during the duration of the experiment) or being able to verbally communicate with them, we will never quite know if horses experience headaches.

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