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Seizures in Dogs and Cats

If your pet has ever had a seizure, you know it can be a scary time for everyone. It’s important to understand why a pet may be having a seizure and what you should do during and after the episode.

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What is a seizure?

A seizure occurs when brain neurons spontaneously begin to fire excessively and simultaneously. When seizures occur, animals may salivate, vomit, urinate, defecate, vocalize, twitch, tremor, collapse, and/or convulse. During this time, animals may have disturbances of their senses.

Seizures can last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes, and in severe uncontrolled cases, for hours. Some animals have seizures without their owners even realizing it, and others can even lose consciousness.

Types of Seizures

Focal/partial seizures (petit mal)

  • Twitching of eyelids, lips, ears (on only one side of the body)
  • Abnormal limb movements
  • May remain conscious
  • If persisting without intervention, can become a generalized seizure/worsen

Generalized seizures (grand mal)

  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • Motor activity in limbs - intermittent flexing and extending
  • Loss of bladder and bowel control - urination, defecation
  • Pupil dilation
  • Vocalization – crying, howling, barking, meowing
  • Autonomic nervous system activity – drooling, vomiting, diarrhea

Seizure Stages

  1. Prodrome: behavioral changes that occur just minutes or hours (or even days) before the seizure
  2. Ictus: the seizure itself
  3. Post-ictal Stage: the period of recovery after a seizure, subtle or obvious, can involve dementia, pacing, hyperactivity, etc.

Causes of Seizures in Cats and Dogs

  • Reactive Seizures: caused by either metabolic diseases or toxicities
  • Structural Epilepsy: caused by degenerative diseases, congenital anomalies, cancer, infectious diseases, trauma, and strokes
  • Epilepsy: recurrent seizures that are not caused by reactive seizures or structural epilepsy
    • Genetic Epilepsy: known genetic causes (human research indicates genetic component involved)
    • Epilepsy of Unknown Origin: no evidence to support genetic epilepsy and proven not to have reactive seizures or structural epilepsy (ruled out by testing)

Testing for Seizures

If your pet has a seizure, you should contact a vet right away. Your dog or cat should receive a thorough physical exam. The vet will also discuss some of the following:

  • History from the owner - determine if the pet got into a toxic cleaning product/mushroom/rat poison, etc.
  • Neurologic examination
  • Complete blood count, chemistry, electrolytes, urinalysis – rule out any metabolic or endocrine causes (for example, hepatic encephalopathy, swelling in the brain caused by severe liver disease/dysfunction)
  • CT or MRI (advanced imaging) - evaluate the brain, looking for lesions, masses, abnormalities in structure
  • CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) tap – rule out bacterial infection vs. immune-mediated causes (bloodwork can be completely normal with an infection present in the CSF)

What do I do if my pet is having a seizure?

If your pet is having a seizure for the first time, stay calm, keep your hands away from their face as they may inadvertently bite you – remember, they may have no control or awareness of what is happening to them or who you are.

Your pet may flail and injure themselves, so if you can safely tuck a pillow or blanket under their head, this may be beneficial. Immediately start timing the seizure. It may seem like hours when it’s only minutes, or minutes when it’s only seconds – when it’s your pet and you’re scared, it can seem like an eternity!

Bring your pet to the veterinarian to evaluate the potential causes of the seizure and determine if any treatment is necessary. Treatment depends on the cause of the seizure(s). Underlying causes need to be diagnosed and treated to attempt to stop the seizures from reoccurring.

If you’ve already been to the vet and know why your pet has seizures, it can be helpful to keep a journal of dates, times, lengths, and types of seizures. This should include whether or not pre-ictal and post-ictal phases are occurring and how long they last. If your pet is on prescription medication, your pet’s response may dictate increasing or decreasing doses and medications.

If your dog or cat has a seizure lasting longer than 5 minutes or has three seizures within 24 hours, it’s advised to go to a vet or nearby emergency clinic as soon as possible! Without treatment, seizures can continue to occur, lengthen in time, worsen in severity, and cause continued damage to the brain.

How are seizures treated?

There are medications that your vet may administer to your pet to stop an active seizure, but these are not preventative. There are anti-seizure medications that may be prescribed for you to administer to your pet daily, however, your vet will determine if this is necessary. There are side effects associated with some anti-seizure medications, and it’s a lifelong time commitment, so the decision must be made carefully based on the specific pet’s needs.

Read more:

Seizure Disorders in Dogs

Seizures and Epilepsy in Cats

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