Understanding Epileptic Seizures in Puppies

Fluffy corgi puppy looks back

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Seizures in puppies can be a scary experience for both you and your pets. While most puppies will never have a seizure, canine seizures can have different causes, different symptoms, and various treatments.

What Are Seizures?

A seizure is a kind of biological power surge that overwhelms the brain. Neurons carry electrical messages from the brain throughout the nervous system. A seizure happens if they fire excessively.

Dogs most commonly suffer what’s called a generalized seizure (historically called grand mal or tonic/clonic episode). The pup may fall over, lose bodily control, may urinate or defecate, and/or vocalize while the legs paddle, twitch, or jerk. Usually they experience abnormal behaviors right before and right after the seizure as well, known as the prodrome and post-ictal periods. The post-ictal abnormalities may last just a few minutes, many days, or even result in permanent changes after a severe seizure.

Dogs can also experience focal or partial seizures where they don't completely lose consciousness, and may have twitching or abnormal movement in just one part of the body.

Psychomotor seizures can also affect dogs; pets may seem to hallucinate (such as fly biting), become aggressive or fearful, or exhibit obsessive/compulsive behavior (such as tail chasing).

Most seizures last only a few seconds to minutes but the post-ictal period can last much longer.

How Common Are Seizures?

Epilepsy is a common neurological disorder in dogs. Some experts estimate as many as five percent of all dogs suffer from epilepsy, and many breeds are predisposed to the condition.

Keeshonden, German Shepherds, and Belgian Tervurens are known to inherit seizure disorders. Other breeds with a high incidence include American Cocker Spaniels, Collies, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Irish Setter, Poodles, Beagles, Dachshunds, St. Bernards, Siberian Huskies, and Wire Fox Terriers. However, any breed of dog, including mixed breeds, could suffer from seizure disorders.

What You Can Do

The first seizure can be frightening, and it's important to know what to do to keep your puppy—and you—from risking injury. Remember that the pet won't know what's going on. Some puppies experience an "aura" just before the seizure characterized by "different" behavior, which is known as the Prodrome stage. This may include whining, wandering, soliciting attention, or just not acting "right." Once you identify these behaviors, they can act as an early warning of future seizures. That way you can get your pet to a safe place before the seizure occurs.

During the seizure, avoid touching the puppy's mouth since it could accidentally bite you without knowing it. Don't worry about your puppy "swallowing its tongue"—that doesn't happen, although it could unknowingly chomp down on your hand or anything else that gets in its mouth.

Sensory stimulation could agitate a dog already in this state, so it is important to speak in soft, calm tones and try to dim the lights and keep other noises to a minimum. Make sure your dog is in a safe location to minimize injuries; if you can, move them away from the edges of furniture or stairs where they could fall. Most seizures last only seconds or a minute. Those lasting longer than five minutes constitute an emergency that needs immediate veterinary help.

Seizures take enormous amounts of energy. After the seizure ends, your dog may act weak or disoriented for a while. You can reassure it and comfort your pooch. Expect it to take some time to recover. If this was the first time your dog ever had a seizure, you should see your vet to help determine the cause even if your dog seems fine afterwards. If your dog has a known seizure disorder, it is a good idea to keep a log of when seizures occur along with details including any abnormal behaviors, diet changes, and current medications so you can monitor for increases in seizure frequency as well. Other reasons to see the vet would be if your dog has multiple seizures in one day, or the frequency of the seizures is increasing over time. Make sure to be consistent with giving any anti-seizure medications as prescribed by your vet.

Causes of Seizures in Puppies

There are many possible causes for seizures including ingestion of toxins, injuries from head trauma, serious illnesses (distemper, heat stroke, brain tumors), low blood sugar, and congenital abnormalities. For those dogs that have recurring seizures with no apparent underlying cause, the condition is termed idiopathic primary epilepsy.

Dogs usually act perfectly normal between episodes, but seizures that are frequent can interfere with the pet’s quality of life and call for medication. Most medications cannot 'cure' seizures but the goal is to reduce the frequency, shorten the duration of each seizure, and reduce the severity of the seizures with the least amount of side effects. In severe cases, reducing episodes to only one or two a month is considered a success.

How Puppy Seizures Are Treated

Some of the same human medications for controlling seizures are also used in veterinary medicine. Phenobarbital, Zonisamide, and Levetiracetam are all used in the right circumstances and your veterinarian can help choose the best treatment plan for your pet.

Newer options may also be appropriate and it can help to combine multiple treatments or multiple drugs in some cases. For example acupuncture can be a helpful supplement to anti-seizure medications. Gold beads can be implanted at acupuncture points to induce long-term stimulation of these sites.

Some epileptic pets don’t respond well to all drugs, so sometimes there is a learning curve in finding the best medication for your specific dog. A dog that is having too many side-effects from their medication, or whose seizures are not well-controlled should be reassessed to see if another medication might be a better fit.

If your puppy develops seizures, get veterinary help as soon as possible. If they're caused by a temporary health issue such as ingesting a toxin, like a poisonous plant, the puppy might make a full recovery and never have another seizure once treated. But even if it turns out your pup has epilepsy and continues to have seizures throughout adulthood, chances are it'll still enjoy a good quality of life with the right treatment.