Seizures in Puppies: Understanding Epilepsy in Dogs

Origins and Treatment

Fluffy corgi puppy looks back
Holly Hildreth / Getty Images

Seizures in puppies can be a scary experience for both you and your pets. While puppy seizures are not common, canine seizures and epilepsy in dogs can have different causes, different symptoms, and various treatments.

What Are Seizures?

A seizure is a kind of biological power surge that blows out the breakers of the brain. Neurons carry tiny electrical messages from the brain throughout the nervous system. A seizure happens if they “misfire.”

Dogs most commonly suffer what’s called a major motor seizure (a.k.a. grand mal or tonic/clonic episode). The pup falls, loses bodily control, may urinate or defecate, and vocalize while the legs paddle, twitch or jerk.

Psychomotor seizures affect behavior; pets seem to hallucinate (such as fly biting), become aggressive or fearful, or exhibit obsessive/compulsive behavior (like tail chasing). Most seizures last only a few minutes and are more frightening than they are dangerous.

How Common Are Seizures?

Epilepsy is considered rare in cats. But some experts estimate as many as three to four percents of all dogs suffer from epilepsy, a figure that is much higher with some breeds. Seizures that first appear prior to age two likely are inherited.

Beagles, Dachshunds, Keeshonden, German Shepherd Dogs, and Belgian Tervurens are known to inherit seizure disorders. Other breeds with a high incidence include Cocker Spaniels, Collies, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Irish Setters, Poodles, Miniature Schnauzers, St. Bernards, Siberian Huskies and Wire Fox Terriers. However, any breed of puppy, including mixed breeds, are not immune to suffering from seizure disorders.

What a Pet Parent 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. This may be 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 him to a safe place and away from stairs or high places from which he could fall.

During the seizure, avoid touching the puppy's mouth since he could accidentally bite you without knowing it. Don't worry about him "swallowing his tongue"--that doesn't happen, although he could chomp down on your hand if you try to put something in his mouth.

Any kind of sensory stimulation could prolong the seizure, though, which means touching him or talking to him could make the convulsion worse. Turning out the lights, or simply covering the puppy's face with a dark cloth may help the puppy recover more quickly. Most seizures last only a minute or two. Those lasting longer than five minutes constitute an emergency that needs immediate veterinary help.

Seizures take enormous amounts of energy. After the puppy wakes up, he may act weak or disoriented for a while. You can reassure him and comfort your pooch once he's conscious again and give him some time to recover. He may simply want to sleep.

Causes of Seizures in Puppies

Injuries from head trauma can cause scar tissue in the brain that prompts seizures. Nearly any serious illness (distemper, heat stroke, poison, organ failure, brain tumors) may cause seizures. But most pet seizures--about 80 percent--have no apparent cause and are termed idiopathic.

Dogs act perfectly normal between episodes, but seizures that are frequent and interfere with the pet’s quality of life call for medication to reduce the frequency, shorten the duration of each seizure or 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 and primidone are commonly given to dogs. Dilantin, which works well in people, is metabolized too rapidly in dogs to be particularly helpful. Your veterinarian can help choose the best treatment plan for your pet.

Newer options may also be appropriate. Pets that suffer from psychomotor seizures have been helped with medications that control obsessive/compulsive disorders. Several universities, including Ohio State and Texas A&M, have researched potassium bromide (an easily metabolized salt) alone or in combination with other anticonvulsants like Tranxene or phenobarbital.

Acupuncture treatment also can help. No one knows for certain how acupuncture works, but a major advantage is the lack of side effects like depression or drowsiness often common with anticonvulsant medications. Gold beads can be implanted at acupuncture points to induce long-term stimulation of these sites.

About 20 to 30 percent of epileptic pets don’t respond well to drugs, either. But most dogs can, with treatment, enjoy a good quality of life.

If your puppy develops seizures, get veterinary help as soon as possible. If they're caused by a health issue such as eating a poisonous plant, the puppy might never have another problem once treated. But even if it turns out your pup has seizures throughout adulthood, chances are he'll still enjoy a good quality of life.