Seizures in dogs
Seizures are common in dogs, especially in certain breeds where there is a genetic susceptibility to epilepsy. A seizure is essentially a disturbance of normal brain function, which leads to involuntary muscle contraction and can be accompanied by vocalisation, urination or defecation. During a seizure the dog is not consciously aware of their surroundings and may be disorientated before and after a seizure. BEWARE – dogs can show non-characteristic aggression following seizures.
Causes of seizures
Our understanding of the brain is still in some ways in its infancy. Epilepsy, correctly termed idiopathic epilepsy, can be passed from one generation to the other. However, in humans and in dogs we still don’t understand the exact mechanism behind the disease. Bear in mind that almost any disease state can lead to a seizure, including a fever, toxins, or damage to organs such as the kidney, liver, heart and the brain.
Symptoms of seizures
Many owners living with epileptic dogs will be very used to seeing the three phases of a seizure. These can be summarised as:
- The pre-seizure or pre-ictal phase. Often behaviour will change; the dog will become less aware of their surroundings or show signs of nervousness and become more restless. They sometimes have difficulty moving without losing balance and/or trembling. This typically lasts for only a few seconds to minutes before the seizure begins, but it is not always present.
- The seizure. This may involve different centres of the brain and therefore can be present in different forms. A full seizure involves loss of consciousness with muscle movement (tonic-clonic seizures) and can last from a few seconds to minutes. The dog may injure itself at this stage, for example, biting their tongue or hitting their legs.
- Recovery or post-ictal phase. As the dog recovers there is often a period where the brain is unable to fully comprehend the surroundings and carry out normal functions. Disorientation is common as well as a period of restlessness and confusion. This should resolve within a few minutes and the dog should return to normal
What you can do yourself
Seizures are not painful. It is more distressing for the owner to observe a seizure than it is for the dog, who is unaware of what is happening. If your dog has a seizure:
- Keep quiet and calm
- Try to reduce external stimuli: turn off the lights, radio and television
- Ensure there are no objects on which the dog could injure itself
- Try to time the seizure from the start until it stops to help you and your vet to keep track of seizure activity
- Status epilepticus is a life threatening situation which occurs when a dog has a seizure for more than 3-5 minutes. This is an emergency situation; you must not delay seeking veterinary attention. Intravenous drugs are required to try to halt the seizure and time is of the essence as it can lead to brain damage.
Treatment of seizures
Anticonvulsants are used either alone or in combination therapy and they are usually administered orally at home. Periodic blood samples are required to ensure that the drug level stays within the therapeutic range.
Not all seizures require treatment; they must be either frequent enough or of a more complex nature to control (cluster seizures) in order to need medication. This is because all medications have side effects. Once started, the dog will need to continue medical treatment for life. Owners of epileptic dogs are encouraged to keep a diary to track seizure activity. The Royal Veterinary College in London has launched a free seizure tracker app to make this easier.
When to see your physical veterinarian
- If your dog has had a seizure that lasts up to 3-5 minutes, you should see a veterinarian the same day so that a full physical examination can be done and, if necessary, further investigations to try to identify the cause.
- If you dog has a seizure that lasts for more than 3-5 minutes, you should seek emergency veterinary treatment, for status epilepticus, at your nearest clinic.
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