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Epilepsy and Seizures

Epilepsy is one of many possible causes of seizures in dogs. Seeing your dog having a seizure is one of the most frightening things you can ever witness. Seizures aren't uncommon in dogs, but often dogs only ever have one seizure. If your dog has had more than one seizure, it may be that he/she has epilepsy.

Other causes of seizures in dogs include:

  • Congenital defects
  • Abnormal blood glucose levels
  • Low oxygen levels in the blood that could be caused by anaemia, heart problems, or difficulties with breathing
  • Kidney disorders
  • Liver disorders
  • Certain infections
  • Brain tumours
  • Certain toxins e.g. lead, chocolate, antifreeze
  • Fevers and hyperthermia e.g. heat stroke Brain damage resulting from trauma or poor blood flow to the brain
  • Certain medications
  • Low calcium in females that are nursing young

How Do I Know If My Dog Is Having A Seizure?

A seizure is an involuntary contraction of muscles caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can vary a lot in how they manifest themselves and in severity, but can generally be divided into either generalized (also known as tonic-clonic or grand mal) or partial.

There are 3 stages to a seizure:
The pre-seizure stage (also known as the aura). This stage occurs usually just minutes prior to the seizure; the dog is often restless and may pace, seek attention, vocalize or try to hide. Ictus is the second stage, and refers to the seizure itself. A generalized seizure begins with the contraction of all skeletal muscles and a loss of consciousness – the dog will usually fall to its side and its legs will be held stiffly with its head extended out. This is often accompanied by excessive salivation and loss of bowel and bladder control and maybe also vocalization and facial twitching. This is the tonic part of a generalized seizure, which is usually quite brief, lasting only a few seconds. The seizure then progresses to the clonic stage where the dog will have rhythmic contractions of its muscles, which typically manifests as paddling of the legs, chomping of the jaws or whole-body jerking-type movements. This stage typically lasts several second up to several minutes. Afterwards, the dog may lay motionless for a brief period, but will eventually start to move and get up. Partial seizures, as the name suggests, are similar in their behaviour to a generalized seizure but only affect a small part or one side of the body.

Following the seizure, some dogs may show what is called post ictal behaviour, signs of which include blindness, disorientation, pacing, or running around the house bumping into things. Post-ictal behaviour can last anywhere from hours to days.

What Should I Do If My Dog Seizures?

  • Remain as calm as possible
  • Try to ensure that the dog's immediate environment is as hazard-free as possible, e.g. remove things that might fall onto the dog if he/she bumps it; if the dog is on a couch or bed, try to move him/her onto the floor Remove children and other pets from the area
  • Observe the dog closely. Call your veterinarian if the seizure lasts more than 3 minutes, or if your dog has one seizure right after another. Severe and long seizures are a medical emergency and can be fatal
  • Be there to gently and cautiously comfort your dog once he/she has recovered.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder that results in recurring seizures due to the dysfunction of neurons in the brain. It is not known what causes the neurons to stop working properly.

Epilepsy can occur in all breeds of dog, including cross-breeds. Epilepsy can be genetic and can be familial, meaning that it can be passed from one generation to the next. As such it is not recommended that dogs with epilepsy are used for breeding.

How Is Epilepsy Diagnosed?

There is no specific test that can be done to diagnose epilepsy. Instead, a diagnosis of epilepsy is made after other causes of recurrent seizures are ruled out. In such situations a veterinarian will consider a detailed history about the dog and the seizures it has had, and likely also perform some diagnostic tests such as blood tests and maybe also take some radiographs or use other imaging techniques.

Can Epilepsy Be Treated?

Epilepsy can be managed but it unfortunately cannot be cured. Management of epilepsy involves the use of medications to decrease the frequency, severity, and duration of the seizures.

Each dog can respond differently to treatment and this is especially the case with epilepsy medications. For this reason your veterinarian will likely try different doses and combinations of medications to determine the most effective treatment regimen for your dog. Your veterinarian will also need to check your dog's blood levels to check that they are at the optimal level. Many dogs will also be quite sleepy when they first start on medications for epilepsy, but this tends to wear off after several weeks.

It is important that epilepsy medications are given every day to maintain good control of seizures.

Even once your dog is on a good treatment regimen, blood levels should be checked periodically. In general, dogs with epilepsy will remain on medication for life.

The most common medications used to control epilepsy are oral medications, namely phenobarbital and potassium bromide.

Additional Information

Veterinary Partner
The Pet Health Library: Seizure Disorders
Dr. Wendy C. Brooks DVM, DipAVBP

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