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Nothing feels more like summer than enjoying a delicious ice cream cone. But eating a tasty frozen treat too quickly can create the dreaded brain freeze, changing pleasure into pain. Brain freeze refers to the temporary headache you may experience after eating cold foods too quickly. If you've ever watched your dog eat an ice cube, you may have wondered: Can dogs get brain freeze?
Brain freeze in dogs isn't a scientifically proven phenomenon, but a few signs could signal your dog is experiencing sudden, sharp pains in the head due to eating cold food or certain health conditions. Don't worry — there are ways to let your pup enjoy a nice, cold summer treat without worrying about brain freeze in dogs.
What Is Brain Freeze?
Before answering the question "Can dogs get brain freeze?" it's helpful to know what brain freeze is in the first place. When you eat cold foods, your brain tissue doesn't actually freeze! And even if it did, there are no pain receptors located in the brain, so you wouldn't feel pain.
In humans, a brain freeze is technically called a sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. That essentially means "pain of the sphenopalatine nerve ganglion," a bundle of nerves located near the trigeminal nerve that transmits sensory signals from the face. In people and dogs, these nerves are located near the back of the roof of the mouth and are highly sensitive to pain or other changes — most likely to protect the brain from injury.
That brain freeze sensation occurs when the tissue in the back of the mouth or throat is cooled rapidly by something like ice cream. The body senses the cooling sensation and automatically dilates blood vessels to that area, which humans perceive as painful. Once the body senses the temperature returning to normal, it sends signals to constrict the blood vessels, ending the temporary painful sensation.
What Are the Signs of Brain Freeze?
Symptoms of brain freeze in humans include temporary sharp or throbbing pain in the forehead associated with eating cold items too quickly. Since dogs and humans have similar nerves and circulatory structures on the roof of the mouth, it's possible they have similar reactions to gobbling icy treats. But since we can't ask dogs, we don't know for sure. Signs that a dog is experiencing discomfort after eating something cold include:
- Head shaking
- Rapid, violent sneezes
- Pawing or rubbing at their face
- Refusing to eat any more of the cold item
Rapid cooling of the roof of the mouth may also affect the trigeminal nerve in dogs. This nerve affects feeling sensations in much of a dog's face and also governs the motor function of the jaw, parts of the eyes and the area surrounding the eyes. Signs that could indicate your dog is experiencing trigeminal nerve pain or dysfunction include an inability to close the mouth, drooping eyelids and facial paralysis. If you notice any of these signs, it's likely not a brain freeze but a medical condition, so consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible.
If It's Not Brain Freeze, Then What Is It?
A number of health conditions in dogs can mimic the signs of brain freeze.
While it's uncertain if dogs can experience brain freeze, they can experience dental pain. This can be associated with eating hot or cold items, or even a cracked or rotting tooth or mouth injury.
Other Neurological Conditions
Epilepsy can manifest as partial seizures and facial nerve weakness. Paralysis due to any number of conditions (ear infections, hypothyroidism, trauma, tumors or toxin exposure in botulism) can mimic behavior associated with brain freeze.
Facial nerve symptoms could also point to trigeminal neuritis, a rare inflammatory disease of the trigeminal nerve in dogs that leads to jaw paralysis.
Dogs who experience food or environmental allergies can exhibit head shaking and sneezing.
If you aren't sure of the cause of your dog's behavior or are worried in any way, always consult with a veterinarian.
Can Dogs Get Brain Freeze? Be Smart With Icy Treats
While the answer to the question "Can dogs get brain freeze?" is uncertain, you can still take steps to minimize the discomfort associated with eating cold items. Here are some vet-approved tips for preventing brain freeze in dogs:
- Humans, unlike other mammals, have higher cognitive functioning and know to eat cold treats at a slower rate or to stop and take a break if they get brain freeze. Dogs don't have the cognitive power to know when to stop. Consider feeding your dog cold items more slowly in bite-sized chunks.
- Give your dog room temperature or cool water but not icy cold water.
- Many frozen treats, including ice cream, are too high in sugar and fat to be considered a good treat for your dog. In addition, sugar-free frozen treats often contain xylitol, which is toxic to dogs. Instead, feed your dog frozen treats that are safe and healthy, like these dog-friendly frozen treat recipes. Alternatively, you can fill a food-dispensing toy with canned dog food and treats, freeze it and let your dog go to town on it.
- If you notice odd behavior in your dog after they've eaten something cold, have your dog checked by a vet to ensure there isn't something else going on.
To avoid the possibility of brain freeze entirely, consider other ways to help your pup cool down this summer. Set up a kiddie swimming pool or a sprinkler in your backyard. Many dog-friendly water parks are also popping up all over the world to help keep dogs active, social and cool. Summer is the perfect time to have fun with your pet, but always give them some time in the shade and an opportunity to rest and rehydrate.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well known international influencer in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 16 years experience in private practice and over 10 years experience in media work. Dr. Wooten is a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and is passionate about helping pet parents learn how to care better for their fur friends. She is also a co-creator of the wildly popular card game 'Vets Against Insanity'. She lives in Colorado with her family. To see what else she has up her sleeve, visit drsarahwooten.com.