Seizures in Dogs

They can be frightening to watch but are usually treatable

Girl with dog in country field
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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. However, they do indicate that there's a problem in the 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 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, 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 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, which are a more serious type, are distinguished by multiple seizures over the course of 24 hours.

Why Do Dogs Have Seizures?

While they're always an indication of some type of brain anomaly, seizures have different causes.

  • An environmental allergy could be the cause, or an infection, bacterial or viral. Usually, removing the allergen from the dog's environment will prevent that type of seizure from recurring.
  • Some infections may cause seizures in dogs. Usually, these can be 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 inherit this condition, but what causes idiopathic epilepsy is still not clear. However, its seizures usually present 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, also may 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 him 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.

A seizure lasting more than five minutes is considered an emergency situation. If this happens to your dog, it's imperative that you take your dog 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.

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.

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. However, if they help manage your dog's seizures, you may find that the benefits outweigh the risks.

One or more anticonvulsant medications may be prescribed by your vet to control your dog's seizures:

  • Phenobarbital
  • Potassium Bromide (KBr)
  • Zonisamide
  • Keppra (Levetiracetam)
  • Gabapentin
  • Felbamate

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 your dog's medications without specific instructions from your vet. Communication with your vet is vital, and it's important that you adhere to her recommendations if you want treatment to be successful. With care and attention, your dog may be able to live a long, healthy life despite the occasional seizure.