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Seizures in dogs are common, but complicated. They are defined as an abnormal discharge of electrical pulses in the brain that result in various unusual functions including abnormal sensations, convulsions, muscle twitching, drooling, foaming, and loss of consciousness.
The impact of epilepsy (also known as status epilepticus) affects the patient and the pet owner. Dogs who experience regular seizures can develop permanent neurobehavioral changes that negatively affect quality of life.
The term “seizure” conjures images of a dog thrashing around and foaming at the mouth. In reality, a dog can experience seizures so mild that the pet owner may not realize it happened. At the other end of the spectrum are dogs who have severe, multiple, long-lasting seizures that can be life-threatening.
The purpose of this post is to give you information that breaks it all down. You’ll get a better understanding of seizures in dogs including causes, diagnosis, medications used, life expectancy, and what to do if your dog has a sudden seizure.
TIP: Keep a journal nearby so that you can make notes regarding the time of the seizure, how long it lasts, whether your dog loses consciousness, and other important information. Your veterinarian will thank you for it.
Important Discrepancies Between Human and Animal Seizures
It’s important to understand that terminology, diagnostic testing, and a true understanding of epilepsy in dogs has, so far, been limited to the same terminology, testing, and treatment as people.
The International Veterinary Epilepsy Task Force has been working (for years) to develop a consensus in the terminology used to describe canine epilepsy.
Epilepsy is a complicated subject that can be made even more complicated through inconsistent terminology and definitions.
This post attempts to use the most common terminology used to refer to seizures in dogs. Generalizations are made in the causes, signs, symptoms, and treatment options for dogs.
The physical makeup of dogs is as varied as it is in humans. There is no black-and-white template for dogs with seizures. When reading this post, please remember that there are variations on the spectrum. No two dogs are alike.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Focal Seizures in Dogs – Simple and Complex
Focal seizures in dogs range from mild to severe and are classified as being either simple or complex. Epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder in dogs with a 0.75%-5.0% chance of a dog getting a seizure.
Breeds like Australian shepherds, Border Collie, Beagles, German shepherd, and Labrador retrievers are more prone to get seizures in their life. Studies have revealed that 1 in 20 dogs are likely to have a seizure at least once in their lifetime.
A “simple” focal seizure occurs when your dog remains conscious. In a “complex” seizure, your dog loses consciousness or experiences varying degrees of awareness.
Complex and simple seizures affect one-half of the dog’s brain and can last from a couple of seconds to a few minutes.
Simple (Partial) Focal Seizures
Simple focal seizures occur as a result of unusual electrical brain activity. These seizures only affect one-half of the brain, and within that half are localized to a specific region.
During a simple seizure, your dog is still aware of his/her surroundings but has no control over bodily functions.
Seizures affect the muscles, senses, automatically controlled functions and thoughts. These are also known as auras because they can be the precursor to complex partial or secondarily generalized tonic-clonic seizures.
Signs of a Simple Focal Seizure
The most common motor signs of simple focal seizures (or auras) are:
- head tremors
- rhythmic contractions of the facial or jaw (masticatory) muscles
- increased tone or clonus (muscle contraction) of one extremity
- head turns to one side
Complex Focal Seizures in Dogs
Complex focal seizures often manifest as bizarre behavior including:
- increased licking, chewing or “fly-biting”
- unprovoked aggression
- running uncontrollably
- rhythmic barking
It’s thought that the unusual licking, fly-biting (snapping at the air) and other signs of complex focal seizures are related to abnormal sensations on the skin or due to hallucinations.
Are Focal Seizures Dangerous?
Focal seizures are not considered dangerous.
Problems arise when underlying conditions are not diagnosed and treated. This is especially problematic if the underlying condition is the trigger of the seizures.
Failure to treat underlying conditions can make the seizures worse. Worsening seizures can lead to status epilepticus, a potentially life-threatening condition.
Potential Causes of Focal Seizures in Dogs
The common causes of focal seizures in dogs are:
- Liver disease
- Eating poison
- Metabolic diseases
- Kidney disease
- Low or high blood sugar
- Brain cancer
- Electrolyte problems
- Head injury
Grand Mal Seizures (Generalized Seizure)
Grand mal seizures, also called Generalized Seizures, are different in focal seizures in that they affect both sides of the brain. Because it affects both sides of the brain, more bodily functions are involved in the seizure.
Generalized seizures can be broken down by type:
This involves muscle contraction or stiffening that might last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
This involves involuntary rapid jerking or muscle contractions.
This is a combination of the two types of seizures mentioned above. What happens is the body begins to contract and the muscles get tight just before going into a state of rapid jerking or contractions.
Myoclonic seizures usually affect both sides of the body and consist of sporadic jerks or movements.
An atonic seizure occurs when the dog loses complete muscle tone and collapses.
A cluster seizure is defined as having 2 or more seizures within a 24 hour period. Dogs with cluster seizures will regain full consciousness between seizures.
This is defined as either a single seizure that lasts longer than 2 minutes, or several seizures over a short period of time without regaining full consciousness between each seizure.
PLEASE NOTE: Any seizures that last longer than 5 minutes can be life threatening. Call your vet immediately. Also, please keep in mind that the period of time from when the seizure starts to when it becomes dangerous may be different from dog to dog.
Idiopathic Seizures in Dogs (Primary Seizures)
Canine idiopathic epilepsy is defined as a dog who has recently had two or more unprovoked seizures. The seizures must be 24 hours apart (minimum) with no underlying obvious cause. Even though a cause may not be evident, the seizures can still be treated.
In order to make the diagnosis of Idiopathic Epilepsy, a veterinarian will go through a process of elimination to ensure no other health conditions or trauma are causing the seizures.
It’s important to make a correct diagnosis in order to adequately treat the condition.
Unfortunately, affected dogs usually require lifelong treatment with antiepileptic medication. The dog will require many visits to the veterinarian to manage the disease.
Caring for a dog with epilepsy requires a fair amount of lifestyle changes. In addition to ensuring the dog is in a safe environment, it’s equally important for dog owners to keep a journal that details every seizure.
Are Idiopathic Seizures in Dogs Dangerous?
Seizures are rarely dangerous and are not painful.
It is the duration where the mind of a dog is in panic or confusion. It can be challenging if your pet is not lying on the floor but standing and is highly able to hit itself with the surroundings. Seizures can be dangerous if the episode time increases by more than two minutes and could not be treated properly.
Diagnosing Seizures in Dogs
Making a definitive diagnosis of seizures in dogs requires a physical examination. The veterinarian may check for reflex activity, look for head tilt, or feel for muscle contracture.
However, a dog can still have epilepsy even if the physical examination appears normal.
CT Scan or MRI
The veterinarian may recommend X-rays of the chest and abdomen to look for evidence of cancer.
Other options include advanced imaging such as a CT Scan or MRI of your dog’s brain.
Most veterinary clinics do not have the machinery for advanced imaging and may refer you to a specialized clinic or hospital.
Blood tests are commonly used to test for kidney and liver function. The tests are compared to normal markers and if they come back too high or too low, they could indicate an underlying condition.
Signs of an underlying condition warrant further testing.
Causes of Seizures in Dogs
There are many causes of seizures. Idiopathic epilepsy, the most common cause of seizures in dogs, is an inherited condition, but the exact cause is unknown. Other causes include:
Toxins can include any common household cleaners, medications, and food. A few examples include the following:
- Xylitol – This sugar substitute is safe for humans but is toxic for dogs. Xylitol is found in some candy, drinks, and toothpaste.
- Antifreeze (fatal)
- Rat Poison
Kidneys filter waste and extra fluid from the body. When they are not working properly, that waste builds-up as toxins in the body. In fact, when the kidneys are not working properly they can create a host of problems for the dog including high or low blood pressure, low red blood cells, and unbalanced pH levels.
The liver, like the kidneys, acts as a filter to rid the body of harmful substances. If the liver isn’t working properly, harmful toxins may build up in the dog’s body leading to seizures.
Types of liver disease in dogs include health conditions like diabetes or cancer.
Any kind of head trauma due to an injury (being hit in the head, hit by a car, etc.) can cause serious problems including seizures.
Brain tumors can press on various parts of the brain that trigger seizures.
One type of electrolyte imbalance in dogs is known as hypocalcemia. Hypocalcemia is the medical term used to describe low blood calcium levels. Calcium is much than a mineral to build strong bones. It is necessary for bone and teeth formation, muscle contraction (heart), blood clotting, vision, and the metabolism of hormones and enzymes.
High or Low Blood Sugar
Dogs with particularly high or low blood sugar may be suffering from a form of diabetes. Diabetes Mellitus can cause seizures from the imbalance of appropriate insulin or from hypoglycemic shock.
Anemia occurs when there is not enough iron in the blood. Seizures are not common in dogs with mild anemia. However, in extreme cases where obvious weakness, pale gums, vomiting, weight loss, and swollen belly appear, seizures may happen.
Other Causes of Seizures in Dogs
- Granulomatous Encephalitis
- Autoimmune Disease
- Congenital Disease
- Parasitic Infection
- Intracranial lesion
Are Sudden Seizures in Dogs Considered Dangerous?
Despite the dramatic and violent appearance of an attack, seizures are not painful, although the dog may feel confused and perhaps panic. If you put your fingers or any object in its mouth it will not help your pet dog and you run a high risk of biting a lot or hurting your dog.
The most important thing is to prevent the dog from falling or hurting itself by hitting objects on it. As long as it is on the floor or on the ground, there is little chance of damage. The dog may feel confused and may panic.
A single attack is rarely dangerous to the dog. However, if the dog has multiple attacks in a short time (cluster attacks), or if an attack lasts for more than a few minutes, the body temperature will start to rise. If hyperthermia (elevated body temperature) occurs as a result of an attack, a different set of problems must be addressed.
Signs & Symptoms of Seizures in Dogs
How your dog responds to a seizure depends on the type of seizure. The list of signs below is a general collection of what your dog might experience during a seizure.
Not every dog will have all of these seizures. Some dogs may have milder versions and some may be much worse. The most common behaviors and muscular contractions include:
- Falling to one side
- Neck arching
- Wandering around the house in a daze
- Muscle spasms
- Loss of consciousness
- Snapping at the air
- Foam in the mouth
- Paddling of the paws (could be one-sided or two occur on both sides)
- Howling, crying out, growling
- Sudden aggression
- Running in circles
- Head tilt
Prodromal Phase Before Seizures in Dogs
Some dogs experience what is known as a prodromal phase. This is a long-term change in the dog’s personality and/or disposition. Dog owners may notice this change hours or even days before the onset of a seizure.
Signs that may occur in the prodromal phase include:
The Postictal Phase of Seizures
This phase is the period of time after a dog has had a seizure. During this phase, the brain regains normal function. It’s not unusual for dogs to appear tired and disoriented. The muscles may be sore due to the accumulation of lactic acid during the seizure.
Dogs may be very thirsty and/or hungry right after a seizure. In some cases, there may even be a short period of blindness that can cause distress. Other behaviors may include:
The Interictal Phrase of Seizures in Dogs
The interictal phase is the period of time between seizures. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of study involved in this. Although many dogs may appear neurologically normal between seizures, it is possible that there are behavioral, emotional, and cognitive changes.
What to do if Your Dog Has a Sudden Seizure
Try to stay calm. The only thing you can do for your dog at this point is to pull furniture, chairs, toys, or anything that might hurt him away.
Stay away from your dog’s head and mouth; they can bite you. Don’t put anything in their mouth. The best thing you can do is take a video of your dog during a seizure and keep a journal with notes. These two things will be invaluable for the veterinarian when making a diagnosis.
If the seizure lasts for more than a few minutes, your dog is at risk of overheating. Turn on a fan and run cold water over its legs to cool it down. Talk softly to your dog to reassure him. Don’t touch them, they can bite without knowing.
If dogs have a seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes or if they have several in a row when they are unconscious, take them to the vet as soon as possible.
The longer an attack lasts, the more a dog’s body temperature may rise and he may have difficulty breathing. This can increase your risk of brain damage. Your vet can give your dog Valium intravenously to stop the attack. Here is a quick list to refer to:
Do Not Restrain Your Dog
It’s a myth that dogs swallow their tongues during seizures so do not attempt to manipulate the dog’s mouth. There is no need to restrain your dog during a seizure. Doing so could result in injury to yourself or the dog.
Time The Seizure
Timing of the seizure and knowing exactly how many seizures your dog has had in 24 hours will be important information to give the veterinarian.
Smart phones make it easy to take videos. This is important to do even if you’re taking notes later. It’s very easy to miss subtle things that a veterinarian may be able to use to determine a diagnosis.
Keep Your Dog Cool
Most seizures last a few seconds to a few minutes. There’s a risk of overheating if your dog is in a seizure for more than a minute. Do not try to bring your dog to a cooler area. Instead, you can:
Open a Window
If you’re inside when the seizure happens, a simple way to cool the house might be to open windows or doors (weather/geographically dependent).
Turn Up the Air Conditioning
If the seizure happens while you are in a car or in your house, turn up the air conditioning if possible.
Put your dog in front of a fan, or put cold water on his paws to cool him down. After that, go over and talk to them in a soft, gentle voice, but don’t touch them.
Contact your vet at the end of the seizure.
If the seizure time is prolonged and can last more than 5 minutes, or if there are too many in a row and your dog loses consciousness, see your vet immediately. This is because, in prolonged seizures, and your dog’s body temperature rises, your dog is at risk for brain damage. Your vet can administer an IV mediation to stop the seizures
Treatment Options for Epileptic Dogs
Anticonvulsant medication is the standard protocol. The veterinarian will decide when the best time to start treatment should be. This decision is based on many factors like cause of the seizure, chances of reoccurrence, prognosis, and side effects of the drug choice.
The treatment regime is most successful (60-70%) if therapy is long-term and given properly. Long-term commitment of the owner is vital for therapeutic success.
Focal seizures are treated on the basis of diagnosis; if they are due to some metabolic or brain disease, then treatment should be started at the same time. This decision is also made if your dog has seizures for more than a month, has long or severe seizures, or if a seizure occurs after another seizure without a gap.
Your vet may prescribe different medications for the treatment depending on your dog’s condition; sometimes, combination therapy is also chosen if your dog responds poorly to one treatment. You should be aware that these medications must be used for life once started.
According to recent studies, it has been seen that if you stop treatment, it can lead to more serious seizures in dogs. If healthy dogs are given this treatment and then stopped suddenly, they may also show symptoms of seizures.
That is why when your veterinarian wants to interrupt the treatment for any reason; he will give you an appropriate plan for it.
There are some common anti-seizure medications that are used for dogs with epilepsy. Generally, the younger a dog is, the more severe the seizures will be. Likewise, if the dog starts having seizures before the age of 2, he/she will likely respond well to medication.
The most commonly prescribed anti-seizure meds for dogs are:
Phenobarbital is an off-label drug used by veterinarians for the treatment of seizures in dogs.
The medication provides relief by causing sedation and brain activity reduction. It is also pet-owner friendly because it remains one of the cheapest anti-seizure drugs. It is available in various forms including:
- liquid solution
- injections performed at the clinic
Possible side-effects of Phenobarbital in Dogs
Side effects could include:
- elevated liver enzymes
- increased thirst
- increased appetite
- increased urination
- incoordination (in large doses)
Dosing is dependent on the dog’s weight, age, breed, severity and frequency of seizures. Typically, the veterinarian will start the dog on a small dose with gradual increases. They may begin by prescribing 1 – 2 milligrams per pound and go from there.
This is a relatively new drug on the market used to treat epilepsy in pets. In dogs, it is usually used in combination with other drug therapies.
Levetiracetam is available in various forms including:
- extended release tablets
- liquid oral solution
- injection perfomed in clinic
Possible side-effects of Levetiracetam in Dogs
Levetiracetam causes very few side-effects in dogs. Too much of the drug could cause severe vomiting and sedation. Side effects could include:
- persistent vomiting in severe cases
- change in behavior in severe cases
Accurate dosing depends on many things including your dog’s weight and the number/type of seizures. The veterinarian may start the drug at 20 mg/kg up to three times a day. If side-effects occur, that amount may be lessened.
Never give your dog any type of anti-seizure medication without a prescription from the veterinarian.
Potassium bromide is an anti-epileptic drug used to control seizures in dogs. This drug is used when Phenobarbital fails to treat the seizures adequately or when the dog cannot tolerate Phenobarbital.
This medication works by depressing the central nervous system enough to decrease seizures.
This drug is available in capsules or tablets with different formulations.
Possible Side-Effects of Potassium Bromide in Dogs
- Sedation – most common
- irritation of the gastrointestinal tract (less common)
- vomiting and loss of appetite (less common)
- increased thirst and urination (less common)
- pancreatitis (less common or rare)
Potassium bromide is effective, but it can take as long as four months for the concentration to reach peak levels. In the early stages of treatment, your vet may start the dog on what’s known as a “loading dose”. This is a higher than normal dose used to try and increase drug levels quickly.
The veterinarian will monitor the dog to watch for signs of side-effects. He/she will manage dosing accordingly.
This drug belongs to a class of benzodiazepines and is short-acting. It is a muscle relaxant that is sometimes used to treat seizures in dogs. It is more likely to be used as an emergency measure to control status epilepticus (when the seizure continues for a long time).
Diazepam works by enhancing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the dog’s brain. Essentially, it blocks the neurotransmitters that cause excitement.
Always consult with a veterinarian before administering Diazepam (Valium) or other similar drugs like Lorazepam (Ativan). These drugs can interact with other drugs. Using this drug with other drugs that cause sedation can slow respiration dramatically.
Possible side-effects of Diazepam in dogs
- loss of coordination
- aggression or changes in behavior
- increased appetite
- slowed heart rate
- slowed breath rate
Diazepam is administered based on the dog’s weight and the condition it was prescribed for. For anxiety, the recommended dose is 0.12 mg to 1 mg per pound once per day as needed.
For seizures, Diazepam is administered 0.23 mg to 0.9 mg per pound. In this case, the medication may be administered rectally. The reason for this is because it is typically used while a dog is having uncontrolled seizures where it is too dangerous to administer orally.
Zonisamide (brand name: Zonegran) is an anticonvulsant medication that is used as an initial therapy to treat epilepsy. It can also be used as an add-on drug to help control severe epilepsy.
Possible side-effects of Zonisamide in dogs
- incoordination or wobbly gait
- lack of appetite (also known as inappetence)
Dosage depends on the size of the dog and whether the dog is currently taking another drug. Generally, this drug is started at 2.5 mg to 5 mg per pound (5 to 10 mg/kg) twice daily.
Gabapentin is prescribed for dogs for a variety of things including osteoarthritis, slipped disc pain, nerve pain, post operative pain, anxiety, and as an adjunct therapy for dogs with idiopathic epilepsy.
Potential side-effects of Gabapentin in Dogs:
Gabapentin is considered very safe for dogs. It is less harmful on the liver and comes with few side-effects. Dogs are generally prescribed Gabapentin short-term (14 days) because, over time, a tolerance can build.
Sudden discontinuation after taking Gabapentin for longer periods of time may result in withdrawal symptoms including increased seizure activity.
Sedation is the most common side-effect.
Gabapentin is prescribed at 10 – 20 mg/kg for anxiety. Higher doses are prescribed to treat seizures. This drug has a wide dosing range that makes it difficult to offer a one-size-fits-all solution.
Alternative Options for Anti-Seizure Medications
- Herbal treatments
- Chiropractic care
- Dietary changes
- Biofeedback and self-control
Note: It’s vital that you get a diagnosis from a veterinarian. Alternative treatments for seizures in dogs should be in conjunction with traditional therapies. Please alert your veterinarian to any alternative measures you wish to take.
Life Expectancy of a Dog with Seizures/Epilepsy
There is a significant commitment to ongoing care and cost that pet owners take on when their dog is diagnosed with epilepsy.
It is accepted that dogs with epilepsy may have a shorter survival time, estimated between 2.07 and 2.3 years, where poor seizure control and high initial seizure frequency are associated with shorter survival times (Packer et al., 2018).Considering Quality of Life in Dogs with Epilepsy
Good communication and owner involvement are fundamental to a positive outcome in epilepsy cases.
Raquel Trevail, July 23, 2019
The life expectancy of a dog with seizures will vary depending on the severity of the seizures and the cause. Underlying conditions like cancer or tumors may significantly reduce life expectancy.
It’s difficult to put a number on a dog’s life, especially when it comes to seizures. The best advice would be to talk to the veterinarian. He/she should be able to discuss the long-term prognosis for your dog.
Breeds Most Prone to Seizures
Although this list may not be comprehensive, these are some of the breeds most likely to have at least one seizure in their lifetime:
- Border Collies
- Belgian Tervuren
- Golden Retrievers
- Labrador Retrievers
- Shetland Sheepdogs
- German Shepherds
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Saint Bernard
Epilepsy is a common chronic neurological condition in dogs. Little is known about the neurobehavioral, emotional, and cognitive effects of epilepsy in dogs. However, there is certainly a balance to be drawn between treatment options and quality of life.
Try not to panic if your dog has a seizure. The best thing you can do is move anything that could harm the dog out of the way. Take notes on what is happening, how the dog looks, describe whether your dog is howling, thrashing, jerking, etc. Take note of whether the seizure is happening on just one side of the body or both. And finally, try to time the seizure.
There are treatment options available. Finding the perfect medicine(s) and dosage may take some fine-tuning, but at the end of the day these treatments are often successful.
Ultimately, caring for a dog with epilepsy is a big commitment of time, energy, and finance. Check with your health insurance plan to find out what costs may be covered.
We love our dogs and we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to keep them well.
Good luck in your journey.
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