Epilepsy in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

White Dog with Black Spots and Ears

Jamie Siever Photography / Getty Images

If your dog has a seizure, it's important to visit your veterinarian to determine the cause. Many seizures are related to epilepsy, a neurological disease that results in seizures. This disease has no known cause, and it can be scary if owners don't know what to expect or what to do when dogs have seizures. Because seizures can either be focalized (affect one part of the body) or generalized (affect the entire body), you may not always recognize the symptoms when one occurs. Symptoms like uncontrolled movements, staring blankly, lip-licking, chattering jaws, and stiff legs are most common.

When left untreated, epilepsy can cause seizures to occur more often, but there are several medications available to limit seizures in dogs with this condition. However, clusters of seizures and severe grand mal seizures can be life-threatening in some cases, so it's essential for owners to seek veterinary help as soon as possible.

While any dog can have a seizure, epilepsy is more common in some breeds. This includes the beagle, Bernese mountain dog, border collie, boxer, cocker spaniel, collie, dachshund, German shepherd, golden retriever, Irish setter, Irish wolfhound, Keeshond, Labrador retriever, poodle, Saint Bernard, Shetland sheepdog, Siberian husky, springer spaniel, Welsh corgi, and wire fox terrier.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological disease that causes seizures in dogs when the brain is overactive without any other medical reason. Seizures in dogs are caused by a sudden burst of electrical activity in the brain cells, leading to uncontrolled movements. Dogs that have seizures regularly—when unrelated to brain abnormalities from injuries or other diseases—are typically diagnosed with epilepsy.

Symptoms of Epilepsy in Dogs

Seizures can cause many different uncontrolled types of movements in dogs. Some dogs may have focal seizures that are not obvious to owners, while others can have generalized seizures that are recognizable by their effect on the entire body.

Symptoms

  • Uncontrolled movements (like leg paddling)
  • Staring blankly
  • Lip-licking
  • Chattering jaws
  • Stiff legs

Focal seizures are often mild, causing dogs to stare blankly, lick their lips, or chatter their jaws. These are commonly referred to as "bubble gum chewing" seizures due to the symptoms they cause. The dog may be upright and standing normally when they occur. However, other focal seizures can cause the dog to get a stiff leg, which it is unable to bend or use normally for a few seconds. These focal seizures may not be noted right away by owners until they begin to occur more regularly.

Generalized seizures usually result in a dog falling onto its side and paddling its legs. The dog's legs may jerk, twitch, or be stiff; the neck may also arch, and the dog may even vocalize. These seizures are more obvious than focal seizures and usually frighten an unsuspecting owner. Grand mal or severe seizures can get progressively worse over time when untreated.

Causes of Epilepsy

Epilepsy is commonly referred to as "idiopathic epilepsy," meaning there is no definite known cause. It's important to remember that a dog can have seizures for other reasons—including being overheated or exposed to a toxin—and not all seizures are a result of epilepsy. Epileptic seizures are seizures that continue to occur throughout the lifetime of a dog, not just in one isolated incident. The following cause is most likely:

  • Genetic disposition: It is believed that epilepsy may be a result of a genetic mutation in dogs. Purebred dogs are significantly more likely to develop idiopathic epilepsy than mixed-breed dogs, and males are more commonly affected than females (though this doesn't mean that mixed dogs and females can't be diagnosed).

It's also helpful to note that most dogs with idiopathic epilepsy develop this condition in the first five years of life. However, about a third of dogs with regular seizures in this age range are diagnosed with other health problems like injuries to the brain or disease. Older dogs with seizures usually do not have epilepsy.

Diagnosing Epilepsy in Dogs

Epilepsy is diagnosed when no other causes of seizures can be confirmed. If your dog has a seizure, your veterinarian will first rule out other health problems like brain tumors, allergic reactions, toxins (either household or from the outdoors), and diseases that commonly lead to seizures.

After a physical examination, veterinarians will recommend checking blood work and urine tests to look for diseases that may result in seizures. If no underlying disease is noted in these test results, an MRI (magnetic resonance image), CT scan (computed tomography), and a CSF sample (cerebrospinal fluid) may be recommended to further look for a cause of the seizures. If no apparent cause of the seizures is found, the diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy is made and treatment is typically started.

Treatment

Several treatments exist that may be used to help treat or manage epilepsy in dogs. Anticonvulsant medications are most commonly prescribed, which should be given throughout the dog's life (sudden stops in medication can cause seizures).

While there is no cure for this brain disease, the symptoms can usually be managed with the administration of anticonvulsants. Special diets and nutritional supplements containing things like MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil may also be recommended to help manage epilepsy. Phenobarbital is often prescribed, however, this medication can cause more severe or frequent seizures when not given at specific times twice per day. Your dog will also need to have regular visits to the veterinarian to ensure the phenobarbital levels in its blood do not lead to liver failure, which can be fatal.

Unfortunately, starting and stopping anticonvulsants may also make your dog's seizures become more severe. For this reason, these medications are only prescribed if the dog has more than one seizure each month, clusters of seizures (happening back-to-back), or grand mal and severe seizures.

To help your veterinarian manage your dog's disease, it's important to keep a log of when the seizures occur and how long they last. This log should be shared with your veterinarian to help formulate the best course of treatment for your dog. Sometimes, triggers can be discovered (and thus, avoided), and it's also possible to find foods and medications that work better than others.

Prognosis for Dogs With Epilepsy

In most cases, dogs with epilepsy can live comfortably when given anticonvulsant medications by their owners on a very consistent schedule. It is not uncommon for dogs to occasionally experience breakthrough seizures; in this case, owners should continue keeping a detailed record of the frequency and length of seizures.

Some types of seizures can be more serious: Clusters of seizures are especially dangerous, as they can lead to a life-threatening condition called status epilepticus, in which a seizure does not stop for hours at a time. When a dog's seizures progress to this severity, veterinarians may recommend euthanasia if the dog has undergone serious brain damage due to the unending seizure.

Thankfully, most dogs do not experience clusters of seizures or severe seizures once they begin treatment with anticonvulsants. Your veterinarian may recommend slight changes in your dog's prescription or additional medications.

How to Prevent Epilepsy in Dogs

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent epilepsy from occurring in a dog, as there is no confirmed cause for this condition's development. The most important thing to remember is that genetics likely play a role, so responsible breeders should avoid breeding dogs with a history of epilepsy or seizures. When adopting a puppy from a breeder, always ask to see the medical history of the litter's parents to determine whether epilepsy or other diseases are present in the family.

Article Sources
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  1. Epilepsy in Dogs. VCA Hospitals.

  2. Canine Idiopathic Epilepsy. University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center.