It can be very scary to see your beloved pet experiencing the signs of a seizure. Here’s how to identify a seizure in your dog and what you can do to help him.

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
August 24, 2020
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MICHAEL LOFENFELD Photography / Getty

It’s hard to miss (and agonizing to watch) your dog have a grand mal seizure. You probably recognize the classic signals of a seizure, such as your dog becoming unconscious and making “paddling” movements with his legs. But that’s just one stage of a seizure, and not all seizures are as overt. Your dog may have more subtle symptoms that lead up to a grand mal seizure or are signals of a more minor event. 

Here’s what to watch for if you suspect your dog is having a seizure. And what you can do for him during and after the experience. 

Causes of Seizures in Dogs

Seizures are caused by short circuits in the brain. These short circuits can have a variety of causes. Any of the following could result in a seizure:

  • Eating poison
  • Low or high blood sugar
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Anemia
  • Head injury
  • Kidney or liver disease
  • Stroke
  • Encephalitis
  • Brain cancer or tumor

However, many, if not most, seizures are classified as “idiopathic epilepsy.” That means the exact cause is unknown, but an underlying genetic predisposition seems to be involved. Certain breeds are more prone to this genetic predisposition, including Australian shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and beagles. However, any dog could have this genetic defect.

Dogs with idiopathic epilepsy tend to start having seizures somewhere between 6 months and 5 years of age. Seizures may be very infrequent (as in once or twice a year), they may come weekly once they start, or they may increase in frequency over time. 

If your dog is having seizures, your veterinarian will do a number of tests to try to find a cause, including bloodwork and possibly special radiographs (X-rays). Unfortunately there is no test to specifically identify genetic seizures. Once other causes are eliminated, then epilepsy is the diagnosis.

Types of Seizures That Affect Dogs

While you may be most familiar with the more dramatic grand mal (or tonic-clonic) seizures, there is also a class of minor seizures that includes focal and psychomotor seizures. With a focal seizure, only one part of your dog is involved. For example, one leg might jerk spasmodically. These tend to be very short episodes—often just a few seconds and can easily be missed.

Psychomotor seizures are short bursts of unusual behavior. Examples include snapping at imaginary bugs. Again, these tend to be short-lived but dogs having a psychomotor seizure are very focused and intense in their behaviors.

Seizure Phases in Dogs

Seizures actually have a three-part sequence. Being aware of these stages and their symptoms will help you be on the lookout for seizures. 

Aural

The aural phase is right before the seizure starts. During this time, your dog may:

  • Appear anxious
  • Pace
  • Drool
  • Stare off into space

Ictal

The actual seizure is called the ictal phase. In this phase your dog may:

  • Seem disoriented
  • Fall over or lie down
  • Lose consciousness
  • Move her legs as if running or exhibit other muscle twitching
  • Bark or howl
  • Empty her bladder and bowels
  • Chomp
  • Foam at the mouth

Postictal

Once the seizure has ended, your dog is in the postictal phase. During this phase your dog tends to:

  • Be exhausted as she gradually reorients to the world
  • Be unsteady on her feet
  • Not respond to you normally

While it seems like a seizure lasts forever, generally they are a minute or less. Once the seizure activity stops, your dog will usually gradually return to normal. (Other than when a brain tumor is the cause, in which case your dog may not regain full function.)

What You Can Safely Do If Your Dog Has a Seizure

While your dog is having a seizure, you should stay nearby and make sure she can’t hurt herself by falling down stairs or banging into anything. Do not put your hand in her mouth! Dogs can’t swallow their tongues and you risk a nasty bite. Some dogs do seem to respond to quiet talk and gentle, long stroking pets. If the seizure lasts more than a minute or two, you need to get her to your veterinarian. Prolonged periods of seizures, called status epilepticus, can be fatal.

Treating Seizures

For dogs with frequent seizures, your vet can try a variety of medications. Seizure treatment is truly customized because different dogs will respond to different medications or “cocktails” of medications. At best, treatment is aimed at “controlling” seizures in dogs, not curing them. Your goal is to reduce the frequency and severity of seizures. It is unlikely that you will end them altogether.