Epilepsy in Dogs

  • By: Mick Whitefield
  • Time to read: 7 min.

When a dog suddenly appears confused, drops on his side, and starts kicking the legs as if treading water, he is most likely having a seizure. Also called as a fit or convulsion, an epileptic seizure is an involuntary and temporary disturbance of normal function of the brain. It is typically accompanied by uncontrollable muscle spasms.

Epilepsy in Dogs

Epileptic seizures can occur in any dog breed although some types of seizures may be more common in some breeds. The condition can be genetic or from an unknown cause. Inherited or idiopathic epilepsy is caused by structural brain problems.

Uncontrolled, abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the dog’s brain are the main cause of seizures, affecting how your dog looks and behaves. The seizures can look like uncontrollable shaking or twitching and can last from 60 seconds to several minutes.

A single epileptic seizure is rarely dangerous. However, if your dog experiences multiple seizures within a short period (known as cluster seizures), or if a single seizure continues longer than a couple of minutes, the animal’s body temperature may begin to rise dangerously.

If your dogs body temperature becomes elevated hyperthermia (not hypothermia) develops because and of after a seizure, you may then be faced with another set of problems that will need addressing.

Dealing with Hyperthermia

It is important to understand that HYPERTHERMIA is the opposite of HYPOTHERMIA.

The condition of Hyperthermia which is what can occur during a long epileptic attack (several minutes) means that the body is overheating which is very dangerous. If your dog appears to be overheated or is struggling to overcome the epileptic attack and looks exhausted more than you might imagine then cooling your dog down may be necessary particularly if your dog has a lot of hair.

A strong flow of air from a fan or open doorway may be crucial, do not be concerned at this point about giving your dog a chill, it is unlikely given that their core temperature is far too high and reducing this is vital.

If you are going to use water use chilled but not iced water and do not just pour it over them but wipe it over them gradually with a sponge or wet towel.


Symptoms of Epileptic Seizures

Symptoms of epilepsy in dogs can include stiffening, jerking, muscle twitching, collapsing, chomping, drooling, foaming at the mouth, tongue chewing, and loss of consciousness. Your dog can fall to his side and start making paddling motions with the legs. Sometimes dogs may pee or poop during the seizure.

Some dogs may seem unsteady, look confused, or dazed. Others might have a blank look or just stare off into space just before an epileptic attack. Afterward, the dog may appear wobbly, disoriented, or temporarily blind. Your furry buddy may walk in circles or bump into furniture or other objects. They might have been drooling heavily leaving a wet chin and they might even try to hide presumably because they are scared and do not understand what has just happened to them.

If this condition persists then over time, the severity of the convulsions may worsen. Importantly, in between the seizure episodes, a dog with epilepsy can appear neurologically normal, as his owner or keeper you may not notice any difference at all.

Causes of Epilepsy in Dogs

Several underlying diseases and other factors can cause or trigger seizures in dogs leading to epilepsy. Idiopathic epilepsy, an inherited disorder, is the most common cause of seizures. Other causes include kidney failure, liver disease, toxins, brain tumours, or trauma.

Often, seizures can occur at times of change in the brain activity, such as those moments of excitement due to going for a walk or feeding. It can also happen as your dog is waking up or falling asleep. However, in between seizures, the affected dogs can look completely normal.

Epileptic attacks lasting more than 5 minutes should be considered dangerous as they could lead to serious brain damage. They also might make the dog more susceptible to future seizures and are more likely to lead to hyperthermia.

Types of Epileptic Seizures

Epilepsy can generally be classified as ‘structural’ or ‘idiopathic’. In structural epilepsy, the underlying cause can be traced to the brain while in cases of idiopathic epilepsy the underlying cause cannot be identified. In the latter category, it’s often presumed that a genetic predisposition is the cause. Although rare and difficult to diagnose their is a third type of epileptic fit known as a “reactive epilepsy”.

In dogs experiencing structural seizures, the underlying cause is usually found in the brain. Potential causes include blood supply problems including obstructions, bleeding, infection, inflammation, brain tumours, brain trauma, developmental problems, and other degenerative brain diseases.

Idiopathic epilepsy typically affects young to mid-age canines (between 6 months and 6 years old) and the underlying cause for the seizures cannot be found. Often, idiopathic epilepsy is assumed to be the result of a combination of environmental and genetic factors.

A reactive epileptic attack usually happens in response to a temporary brain function problem caused by such things as metabolic changes or poisoning – this kind of epileptic seizure is reversible when the disturbance or cause is found and rectified.

These seizures or epileptic attacks are also categorized as Primary seizures or Focal seizures. Primary seizures affect the the whole brain as in both hemispheres whereas a Focal seizure affects one side of the brain but can eventually affect the whole brain.

Diagnosis of Seizures

Epilepsy is not a common neurological disorder in dogs and is estimated to only affect about 0.75% (less than 1%) of the dog population.  A vet will diagnoses idiopathic epilepsy by ruling out several other diseases that could also manifest as seizures. This process entails a complete blood count, urinalysis, and a biochemical analysis to exclude other systemic medical conditions outside of the brain, but that may have some effect.

If you are not visiting your own vet, the vet will want a complete history of your pet’s illness. This includes details such as the duration and number of the seizures, and whether something appears to trigger the attacks. Ensure you tell the vet about any supplements or medications your dog is currently taking to help him make the best treatment decision and reduce the risk of any harmful drug interactions.

It may be that your vet will have to attach your dog to an EEG machine to possibly help determine which brain areas are being affected.

Treating Epilepsy in Dogs

Except for Reactive Epilepsy, Canine Epilepsy has no cure as such, treating the possible underlying causes for secondary epilepsy eliminates or reduces future occurrences. The vet will perform a thorough physical examination, complete with lab work to identify any potential underlying causes. Diagnoses though may be a question of cutting out certain foods, supplements or circumstances so as to eliminate the possible causes.

If however, the diagnosis reveals a medical problem, then the vet may opt to first treat the problem to see if that assists in improving the condition of your pet. In some cases, he may prescribe anti-seizure medications such as levetiracetam, phenobarbital, or potassium bromide.

If the vet recommends commencing your dog on antiepileptic drug (AED) therapy, be sure you thoroughly discuss this with them so that you understand why it’s necessary and also how to manage the treatment and drugs that you will be giving to your dog. It is likely that correct usage of these drugs will be important to get right, such as at which point to administer and the regularity.

Prognosis and Caring for, an Epileptic Dog

With proper management and attention, dogs with epilepsy can continue living high-quality lives. However, such dogs often have shorter life spans than normal because they are not completely healthy, either due to known or unknown causes. At Top Lap Dogs we have seen that it can be very stressful and confusing for both the dog and its owners. Stress and confusion because of an attack must be very difficult and confusing for the dog to understand.

Owners of pets with primary epilepsy can manage the disease better by monitoring abnormal (pre-ictal) behaviours. These are behaviours that some dogs might display before an actual seizure and may allow you to put your dog into a safe area prior to any attack such as a more comfortable space with a softer floor and fewer objects within reach to reduce the risk of injury during the convulsion or fit, and medicate if it is deemed suitable.

Pre-ictal behaviours may be seen seconds or even hours before the attack and they may vary based on the particular dog. Some of the common behaviours to watch for include restlessness, whining, nervousness, salivation, hiding, or seeking you out (as if the dog senses the coming seizure).

Although recognizing these abnormal behaviours won’t prevent the epileptic seizure, you can at least be ready to record the animals behaviour during the attack to give a more comprehensive report to your veterinarian. 

Talk to your veterinarian about the signs to look for and what measures you can take prior to an attack, during and after.

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