Seizures are one of the most common neurological problems seen in dogs. A seizure happens when the cerebral cortex part of the brain functions abnormally. There are many different diseases that can cause seizures in dogs and sometimes, as in the case of idiopathic epilepsy, the cause of seizure activity is unknown. It's important to know how to identify a seizure and understand potential treatment options.
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A seizure (scientific term is "ictus") can also be called a convulsion or fit. It's a temporary involuntary disturbance of normal brain function. In most cases, it's accompanied by muscle activity that is uncontrollable.
There are many reasons that dogs may have seizures. Epilepsy is a medical condition and results in multiple seizures taking place. This is the most common reason for seizures. It is an inherited condition, but the exact cause is unknown. Other causes for seizures in dogs include brain tumors, brain trauma, liver disease, liver failure, or a reaction to something toxic.
While they can occur at any time of day or night, they are most frequent at times of changing brain activity. This could include when a dog is excited, eating, falling asleep, or just waking up. Between seizures, most dogs will appear completely normal.
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Most seizures actually occur in three distinct phases. Knowing this can help you prepare and understand that a seizure, while scary, will end.
- Pre-ictal (or aura) phase. A period of altered behavior. Your dog may seem nervous, hide, or find its owner. The dog can appear restless, nervous, and may be whining or shaking. This phase could last a few seconds or hours. It precedes the seizure. The dog likely senses that something is about to occur.
- Ictal phase. This is the seizure itself. It could last from a few seconds to five minutes. The dog may lose consciousness or just appear absent. If the dog is experiencing a full-blown seizure, known as grand mal, they will lose consciousness, fall over, and likely move its body and legs erratically. It is possible the dog will urinate, defecate, or salivate. If the seizure has not stopped in five minutes, this is known as a prolonged seizure (status epilepticus). This should be considered an emergency and medical professionals should be sought immediately.
- Post-ictal phase. This time immediately after the seizure is usually accompanied by confusion, disorientation, restlessness, pacing, or even blindness.
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Keep track of your dog's seizure history. Most vets will only begin treatment if your dog has had:
- More than one seizure a month
- Cluster seizures, where a seizure is followed by multiple seizures
- Grand mal seizures that are prolonged
Phenobarbital and potassium bromide are the medications that are most commonly used to treat seizures and epilepsy in dogs. They are both anticonvulsants. Once an anticonvulsant medication is started, it must be given for life. If it is discontinued, the dog is at greater risk for seizures throughout its life. Speak with your vet about all your options and understand the instructions if you find you need to change medications.
Seizures are unexpected and really cannot be prevented. Although they look traumatic, seizures are not painful to the dog. The most harm can come if they fall or hit into other objects while the seizure is occurring.
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Seizures in dogs can be caused by many different illnesses. As a result, if your dog has a seizure, your veterinarian will need to perform some diagnostic tests before a proper course of treatment can be determined. The vet will start with a complete medical history. They may focus on any history of head trauma and/or exposure to poisons or hallucinogenic substances.
Then a physical examination will occur. This often includes blood and urine tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG). The vet will use these tests to rule out any medical issues with the dog's liver, kidneys, heart, electrolytes, and blood sugar levels. If your dog is not taking monthly preventative heartworm, a heartworm test will likely also be conducted.
If the test results are normal and exposure to poison or trauma have been eliminated, further tests may occur. The vet may perform a spinal fluid analysis, CT scan, or MRI. These can look directly at the structure of the brain and internal workings of the body.
If the seizures are occasional (less frequently than once a month), the vet may not be as concerned and may not conduct these more invasive (and costly) tests. If the seizures become more frequent or more severe (or both), this is information must be conveyed to your vet and additional testing may occur.