A seizure is a sudden episode of abnormal brain activity that often involves some loss of body control. Depending on the type it's having, watching your dog have a seizure is one of the scariest things you can experience and often makes you feel helpless and afraid for your dog's safety.
Fortunately, most seizures are not considered to be life-threatening. They do indicate that there's a problem with your dog's brain and that you need to have your pet examined by a veterinarian (even if it's had seizures in the past).
What Seizures Look Like in Dogs
Some dogs begin to act strangely before a seizure begins and may become anxious or restless. Some may stagger, appear disoriented, or exhibit other abnormal behaviors. This period, which precedes the seizure, usually lasts a few minutes and is called the aura or pre-ictal phase. The seizure itself often manifests as full-body convulsions or small, localized spasms that may last from a few seconds to a few minutes.
- Generalized or grand mal seizures: These usually involve the entire body. A dog suffering a grand mal seizure may fall over, become stiff, and shake its whole body violently. Many dogs salivate or foam at the mouth, and some urinate and/or defecate involuntarily. Dogs may vocalize as well, whining and growling during a seizure.
- Focal seizures: The least serious type, these are limited to a specific part of the body and may not look like much more than a twitch in the dog's facial muscles or limbs.
- Psychomotor seizures: These are characterized by odd behavior that lasts only a minute or two. For example, your dog may suddenly start chasing its tail or acting as if it sees things that aren't really there.
- Cluster seizures: These are a more serious type, distinguished by multiple seizures over the course of 24 hours.
Why Do Dogs Have Seizures?
Although they're always an indication of some type of brain anomaly, seizures have different causes. Seizures often occur during times of changing brain activity. For example, a dog may have a seizure when it's falling asleep or waking up or particularly excited.
An environmental allergy could be responsible. Usually, removing the allergen from the dog's environment will prevent this type of seizure from recurring. Take note if something new seems to trigger the seizure or speak to your vet to determine the cause.
Some viral or bacterial infections may cause seizures in dogs. These are typically treated with antiviral or antibiotic medications. The most common cause of seizures in canines is known as idiopathic epilepsy. It's believed that most dogs with this condition inherit it, but what causes it is still not clear. This type of seizure usually presents at times when the dog's brain activity is shifting from one mode to another (such as between sleep and wakefulness). A brain tumor, whether it's malignant or benign, may also cause convulsive seizures in a dog.
Treatment and Prevention
If your dog has had seizures before and you think one is coming on, try to move the dog to a safe, soft area where there are no sharp objects or hard floors. The best thing you can do is to remain calm and try to keep your dog and yourself out of danger. Never put your hands near or in your dog's mouth during a seizure.
If brain malformations, brain tumors, inflammation in the brain, or infections are ruled out, it's likely your dog will be diagnosed with epilepsy. Fortunately, seizures in epileptic dogs can often be regulated with medications and/or lifestyle changes. There are several anticonvulsant medications that your vet might use to control your dog's seizures.
Most vets won't recommend pharmaceutical treatment if the seizures occur less often than once a month or if they're very mild. As with any medication, these drugs can have side effects. If they help manage your dog's seizures, you may find that the benefits outweigh the risks.
When to Call Your Vet
A seizure lasting more than five minutes is considered an emergency situation. If this happens to your dog, it's imperative that you take it to a vet immediately to prevent brain damage and hyperthermia. The occurrence of more than three seizures in a 24-hour period is also an urgent matter that requires a trip to the vet right away
After the seizure has ended (known as the post-ictal phase), call your veterinarian as soon as possible. If it's the first time your dog has had a seizure, the vet will want to determine the cause and will run blood tests and conduct a physical exam. Additional tests may include a CT scan, an MRI, or even a spinal tap.
Log the Seizures
If your dog has recurring seizures, keep a log of any seizure-like activity. Describe the nature and length of each event, including the pre- and post-seizure phases. This information may be useful to your vet in determining how to treat your dog.
One or more anticonvulsant medications may be prescribed by your vet to control your dog's seizures:
For many dogs, there's a period of trial and error with anticonvulsant therapy. Drugs may be combined, adjusted, or switched until your dog's seizures are regulated. In many cases, lab tests must be performed regularly to monitor your dog's response to medication and overall health.
Never change any aspect of your dog's medications without specific instructions from your vet. Communication with your vet is vital, and it's important that you adhere to their recommendations if you want the treatment to be successful. With care and attention, your dog may be able to live a long, healthy life despite the occasional seizure.
Dog Seizure Signs. Metropolitan Veterinary Associates
Podell, M. et al. 2015 ACVIM Small Animal Consensus Statement On Seizure Management In Dogs. Journal Of Veterinary Internal Medicine, vol 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 477-490. Wiley, doi:10.1111/jvim.13841