A Vet's Guide to Understanding Dog Seizures
Seizures are one of the most frequently reported neurological conditions in dogs. They are characterized by a temporary and involuntary disturbance of normal brain function. In dogs, traditional seizure symptoms include loss of consciousness, uncontrollable muscle activity, loss of bowel control, and collapsing. After dogs display seizure behavior, they may appear disoriented, unsteady, or temporarily blind.
Brian Petrovsky, DVM, currently completing a soft tissue and orthopedic surgery residency at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine, shares all you need to know about dog seizures.
Types of Dog Seizures
“Differentiating between types of seizures helps a vet get to the bottom of the concern,” Petrovsky says. Although you should consult your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis, types of seizures include:
Dogs experiencing this type of seizure—also known as tonic-clonic or grand mal seizures—will lose consciousness and their muscles will alternate between being extended and flexed. Generalized seizures usually last from a few seconds to a few minutes.
These seizures usually show up as unusual movements in one limb or on one side of the body. This kind of seizure typically lasts only a few seconds, but it can expand to become a generalized seizure.
It’s difficult to understand these seizures because they appear as odd behavior such as suddenly biting at imaginary objects. They last only a few minutes, but a dog will always do the same thing every time they have this type of seizure.
This is an inherited disorder that can cause seizures. While the origins of idiopathic epilepsy are unknown, The Canine Epilepsy Project explores potential genetic sources for these repeated seizures. Young (six months to six years old) Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, poodles, keeshonds, beagles, German shepherds, dachshunds, Irish setters, and cocker spaniels may be genetically predisposed to this condition.
Two or more seizures occurring within a 24-hour period are known as cluster seizures.
Status Epilepticus is a state of continuous seizure activity lasting longer than five minutes, or multiple seizures without recovery in between. Prolonged seizures put your dog at risk of overheating which leads to difficulty breathing and an increased risk of brain damage.
Causes of Seizures in Dogs
Unlike with humans, dog seizures are not set off by triggers. “When I think of the word trigger, it makes me think of flashing lights or loud noises like with humans, but fortunately triggers like that are not common with [seizures in] animals,” Petrovsky says. Instead, a seizure is typically a sign of an underlying condition (except in cases of Idiopathic Epilepsy, which is a disorder).
“Health-related causes for dog seizures are vast, ranging from congenital, degenerative, metabolic, cancerous, nutritional, or inflammatory,” Petrovsky says. Kidney disease, anemia, encephalitis, brain cancer, and liver disease are a few of the conditions that can lead to a seizure. Brain diseases can irritate neurons, while systemic disorders can adversely affect neurons. Petrovsky also says portosystemic shunts, a liver growth abnormality that’s common in toy breeds, can cause seizures.
Dogs suffering from a traumatic brain injury may experience a single seizure or patterns of seizures (posttraumatic epilepsy).
Petrovsky encourages owners to reference the ASPCA’s list of common toxins that may cause seizures. This list includes medications, heavy metals, anti-freeze, and anything with the sugar-free additive xylitol. If you believe your dog has been exposed to a toxin, you can also call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435. “They have veterinary toxicologists that can give direct recommendations to the vet team and owners regarding treatment,” Petrovsky says.
Puppies having difficulty nursing may be unable to regulate their blood glucose level. Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can ultimately lead to seizures. Additionally, older dogs are predisposed to brain tumors, which can cause seizures.
What You Can Do
If you believe your dog is having a seizure, it’s important to stay calm. There are many things you can safely do to help your dog through the seizure. First, speak gently and secure the area around your dog. Carefully slide your dog away from any glass surfaces or sharp corners. Be careful not to put your hand near or in your dog’s mouth. Dogs can’t swallow their tongues, so you’ll only put yourself at risk of a nasty bite.
Next, “the best thing an owner can do for a seizure, even though it’s super counterintuitive, is capture a video,” Petrovsky says. Sharing this video with your vet can answer many initial questions, help diagnose an atypical seizure, and differentiate the episode from issues that simply mimic a seizure.
Also, keep track of how long any seizure lasts. “Most seizures, if they’re going to be epileptic or recurring, are going to end within thirty seconds to a minute,” Petrovsky says. Once the seizure ends, call your vet. However, a single seizure doesn’t automatically merit a rush trip to the emergency vet. Head to the vet if your dog experiences cluster seizures or status epilepticus.
Take note of the date, time, and length of any subsequent seizures to help the vet identify a potential pattern.
Treatments for Seizures
If epilepsy doesn’t seem to be the source of your dog’s seizures, your vet will try to treat the underlying cause. “For example, excessive fluid buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain may require surgery,” Petrovsky says.
If an underlying cause can’t be found, your veterinarian may prescribe an anti-seizure medication. “When treating recurrent seizures there are anti-seizure medications that act as Band-Aids and help the symptoms,” Petrovsky says. “These are most commonly used for idiopathic epilepsy and may consist of Phenobarbital, Levetiracetam, Gabapentin, and Potassium Bromide as prescribed by a veterinarian.”
“In many cases when anti-epileptic therapy is initiated, it’s to control seizures,” Petrovsky says. Owners should understand they can’t expect to eliminate all seizures. “The goal is to minimize the frequency and severity of seizures and minimize the occurrence of clusters,” he says.
“No over-the-counter medications are a good alternative for seizure treatment,” Petrovsky says. “The specific medication or medications chosen are based on the underlying cause, patient factors, cost, and follow-up needed.” Human anti-epileptic medications are not advised as they may be toxic or may not reach therapeutic levels in dogs.
Petrovsky says there are no home remedies for seizures he knows of or would currently recommend. Some seizures ultimately resolve themselves without treatment, but all require followup.
The long-term prognosis for dogs with seizures depends mostly on the underlying cause or lack thereof. “A dog with a brain tumor may not have a cure and thus [have] a significantly shorter survival time than a dog with a toxin that is treated successfully,” Petrovsky says. “Even within those categories, there are differences. In the former case, a dog that undergoes radiation therapy would be expected to live longer than one that’s purely on anti-epileptic therapy.”
Specific numbers are clearer for dogs with idiopathic epilepsy. According to the University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center, “About 60-70 percent of epileptic dogs achieve good seizure control when their therapy is carefully monitored.”
Determining if you should put your dog down because of their seizures is a “balance based on prognosis, quality of life of the dog and owner, therapies required, and unfortunately cost of treatment,” Petrovsky says. This is a conversation you should have with your family veterinarian, who can help guide you to the best path by thoroughly discussing the options, prognosis, and expectations.