HEALTH & CARE

Epilepsy in Dogs: Learn About Factors That May Trigger Seizures

Epilepsy in Dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Dogs are known for being very resilient pets, but they do need some assistance along the way, especially when they start to get sick. Some illnesses can go away with a little tender, loving care, but some dogs may develop conditions that they can have for the rest of their life. Epilepsy is one of these conditions, and it can be extremely frightening the first time your dog has an episode.

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Epilepsy in dogs is mostly pain free for your dog, though there may be some lingering side effects that occur afterwards. It’s important to know what could be triggering these episodes, and to remain calm when one occurs. Receiving the diagnoses from your veterinarian can help you to cope with the symptoms and to prepare for whenever the next one occurs.

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that results in recurring seizures. These occur when there has been a misfiring of the neurons within the cerebrum of the brain. This is the part of the brain that forms the main bulk of the brain and is divided into the right and left hemispheres.

Dog epilepsy poster

The cerebrum is responsible for the receiving and analysis of information through seeing, smelling, tasting, and his other senses. It allows your dog to carry out complex behavior patterns. These seizures can interfere with those patterns and make it more difficult for your dog to carry out even the simplest of tasks.

What are the causes of epileptic seizures?

Because the brain is so complex, there is no real way of telling what can trigger a seizure to occur. Many dog owners have noticed that seizures tend to occur when their dogs have become excited, such as during a game of ball or when the owners have returned home from a period of absence. Some vets may believe it is an imbalance of the neurotransmitters that help with the firing of the neurons, but there could be a number of factors involved. These factors can include:

  • congenital defects
  • abnormal levels of blood sugar
  • abnormal levels of oxygen in the blood, whether due to anemia, heart problems, or difficulties breathing
  • disorders of the liver or kidneys
  • brain tumors or brain damage from an injury
  • poisoning
  • medications

Idiopathic epilepsy, or primary epilepsy, is epilepsy without any known cause. There are no means of identifying the triggers for such seizures, which can leave many dog owners feelings quite troubled and helpless. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope. There are plenty of steps and treatment options that are available that will help to maintain the quality of a dog’s life and ensure that there are no detrimental effects of his seizures.

Are there different kinds of seizures?

Epilepsy seizures can present in a number of ways, but there are differentiated into two main kinds: partial and generalizes. Partial seizures only affect a small area of the body. These can reveal themselves in the forms of facial twitching, or excessive pawing of a certain body part. Behavioral changes can accompany a partial seizure as well, such as howling nonstop, sudden aggression, and biting at the air for no reason.

Generalized seizures, on the other hand, affect the entire body, and can be grand mal or petite mal. Grand mal seizures are the most common, and present with the dog falling onto his side and having uncontrollable muscle movement. There can be excessive salivation, as well as loss of bladder and bowel control. Petite mal seizures merely appear as if your dog simply lost consciousness, as there is no muscular activity involved.

Neither is more severe than the other to your dog’s health, but if your dog experiences several grand mal seizures within an episode without recovering from the previous one, then they can become incredibly life threatening.

What to look for in a seizure

An epileptic seizure occurs in stages, and you can learn to tell the difference between these stages by keeping a careful watch over your dog. These stages can generally tell you how long a seizure will likely last. There are four main stages to a seizure: prodrome, aura, ictal, and post-ictal. Prodrome is the pre-seizure phase, and where you may notice certain behavioral changes in your dog that may last a few minutes or up to a few hours. Your dog will act restless, and start to pace incessantly, seek out attention, salivate, whine, or hide.

Aura is the most difficult stage to determine, as it is when your dog’s sensory state begins to change. More behavioral changes will be noticeable right before the seizure starts. Ictal is the actual occurrence of the seizure. This is where the loss of motor control occurs, and generally lasts less than five minutes.

Post-ictal is after the seizure has occurred and your dog is recovering. He will seem disoriented and uncoordinated, and in some rare cases, temporarily blind. Post-ictal can last from a few minutes to a few days, and it is during this stage that your dog requires the most comfort.

Above are a few videos of dogs experiencing generalized seizures so you can see what to look out for.

Receiving an epilepsy diagnosis

There are many tests that your veterinarian can put your dog through in order to determine whether he has epilepsy. CT scans and MRIs of your dog’s brain can reveal the source, and your vet may also want to conduct urinalysis and blood tests in order to rule out other causes of your dog’s seizures. If the tests don’t reveal a cause, then the diagnosis is ruled as idiopathic epilepsy.

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So what does that mean for your dog? Just because there isn’t a definitive root of your dog’s condition doesn’t mean that it can’t be handled properly. Treatment is usually never recommended until you’ve noticed a pattern in the seizures, after multiple seizures have already occurred. Being aware of the pattern beforehand can help your vet to know whether the treatment being provided is working. Keep in mind that the treatment options will not make your dog’s epilepsy go away.

Rather, they are designed to reduce the frequency and severity of the seizures that your dog experiences.

Seizure detection

Epilepsy medications are given orally, and your vet may give you a combination of different ones to try to see which ones work best for your dog. The main side effect that you’ll first notice is that it makes your dog drowsy, but this wears off after the first few weeks. When prescribed, epilepsy medications need to be given consistently every day.

Skipping a dose or discontinuing to give medication can result in severe seizures occurring. Epilepsy is a life-long condition, which means that it requires life-long medication. In the case where your dog experiences prolonged seizures, then intravenous medications are typically given to have a more immediate effect.

Side effects to epileptic seizures?

Although it is said that your dog experiences no pain during a seizure, it doesn’t mean that everything is fine. Your dog may lead a completely normal life with epilepsy, but even short seizures can cause some amount of brain damage. This accumulates over time, after each episode, and this can lead to the seizures themselves getting progressively worse. This can be a difficult cycle to stop without the right medications or treatments.

If your dog has a seizure that lasts more than thirty minutes, then he is likely to suffer serious brain damage that is permanent. It could presence as a serious change in personality or a loss of memory, such as being house broken. A seizure can place a great deal of stress on the body’s organs, such as the heart and lungs, as your dog may have a hard time breathing when he has an episode. In some rare cases, your dog may fall into a coma from the seizures.

Natural remedies for my dog’s epilepsy

Many of the epilepsy medications such as Phenobarbital can have damaging effects on your dog’s liver, especially in very high doses.

Acupuncture inforaphic

There are holistic alternatives that can be used to help your dog recover and even less the frequency of episodes, all while supporting his health.

  • Acupuncture: this is the insertion of fine needles into the dog’s skin at specific points in order to move energy around or release bad energy from the body. A build-up of energy in the wrong place is said to cause ailments throughout the body. If you’re interested, speak with your veterinarian about a pet acupuncturist that they can recommend, as dogs do not have the same anatomy as humans.
  • Diet: altering your dog’s diet to one without diet allergens can certainly reduce his epilepsy episodes. Look at food labels to see which ingredients are included in your dog’s food, and choose one that is without certain allergens. If possible, transition your dog to home-prepared meals made from organic ingredients in order to reduce the chances of another seizure occurring.
  • Omega oils: Omega-3 and Omega-6, the fatty acids found in most fish, have always been promoted as helping the functioning of the brain. Including these in your dog’s diet can reduce the excitability of the neurons and prevent from misfiring in the first place. A tablespoon or two in your dog’s food can help to reduce their frequency and intensity of the seizures that occur.
  • Herbs: many natural herbs have been used to promote brain function, such as ginkgo biloba, milk thistle, and chamomile. They have been used to treat seizures in humans without any side effects. They’re safe and can be found in powdered or capsule form to be sprinkled over your dog’s food. Dosages should be discussed with your vet beforehand.
  • Seeing a Chiropractor: in the event that your dog experienced a head injury or some kind of physical trauma, getting chiropractic care can treat cases of epilepsy within dogs. Make sure that the chiropractor has been certified in dealing with canine epilepsy.
  • Taking measures against prevention: what goes into the body makes a difference in the health of your dog. Avoid exposing your dog to toxins, such as cigarette smoke, car exhaust, or polluted drinking water. Cheap flea prevention that you buy over the counter can result in seizures in your dog due to toxicity. Avoid over-vaccinating your pet as well, as this can aggravate the condition even further. Eliminate any sources of stress that can overexcite your dog, and provide enough exercise so that your dog has a venting mechanism.

Are there breeds of dogs that are more prone than others?

There are some dog breeds that are more susceptible to epilepsy than others, but it can also occur in mixed breed dogs by being passed on through genetics. Dogs who do develop epilepsy should not be used for breeding in order to prevent future litters from developing the condition as well.

Seizures in dogs

Such dog breeds include:

  • Irish Setters
  • German Shepherds
  • Beagles
  • Poodles
  • Saint Bernards
  • Huskies
  • Malamutes
  • Dachschunds
  • Collies
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Labrador Retrievers

Typically, you’ll see the first signs of epilepsy in dogs as early as six months old and as late as five years old. Symptoms usually present around two to three years old.

What to do when your dog has a seizure

In the event that your dog is having a seizure, the first thing you should do is remain calm. You should avoid putting your hand in your dog’s mouth, as you could get bitten in the process. If there are hazardous objects around your dog or you are in a dangerous area, remove them or drag your dog by his hind legs to a safer location. Remove any children and/or pets from the room in order to create a calming atmosphere when your dog recovers. Then, wait it out.

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Check your watch to see if the seizures are lasting more than three minutes, or if your dog has a seizure one right after the other. If so, then contact your vet immediately. A single seizure rarely needs long-term treatment, but you should still report the incident to your vet. Be sure to record the date, time, and duration of the seizure.

Above is a video of a veterinarian explaining what to do when your dog is having a seizure:

Does epilepsy shorten a dog’s life?

Depending on your dog’s lifestyle, how often he has seizures, his medication, and the care provided after a seizure has occurred, your dog can go on to live a long and normal healthy life. Epilepsy, when treated properly, does not shorten your dog’s life expectancy. However, if your dog is left to have seizures in dangerous places or around hazardous objects, and he isn’t receiving treatment of any kind, then the physical injuries received and brain damage can dramatically shorten the length of his life.

It is important to keep a record of all of your dog’s epileptic seizures, both before and after you’ve visited your vet. Epilepsy can be a very complicated condition to treat, but having a physical record of the length and date of each episode can not only provide your vet with the information he needs to arrive at a correct diagnosis, but it will also help him to know whether the prescribed medication is actually working. It may be an extra piece of bookkeeping on your part, but you’ll be more thankful for it.

Practising for real seizure

Have your vet demonstrate to you what the protocol should be when your dog has an epileptic seizure. This will keep you safe, you’ll be less fearful when an episode occurs, and you can be better prepared to transport your dog into the car to get him to the vet in the case of an emergency. You can practice «seizure drills» with your family so that everyone can play their part and get their medical attention that your dog needs more efficiently.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • Vanessa Rogers

    Hi! I have some questions regarding epilepsy in dogs. My bestfriend’s dog just suffered a seizure and is going to the vet for some treatment. My aunt used to suffer from the same disease and had taken pills. Is this the same thing with dogs?

    I’ve read that there are some drug treatments that must be taken for by the dog for life. Any information if this is true?
    How will it change the dog’s life, I wonder? What’s the worst that can happen?
    Thanks for any help!

    • Let us answer your questions point by point:

      1. Yes there are medications that are included in the dog’s medical management that is required to be taken for life.
      2. Most dogs with epilepsy that are taking lifetime medications live a life that is almost like any normal dog would have. However, there are still things that may happen like side effects caused by long term treatment.

      But in sum, thanks to the advanced veterinary technology, the medical management for dogs become more and more effective through the years.

  • Margo Walter

    As per our vet’s stern recommendations, the best thing we can do is to NEVER skip any medication. This coupled with detailed records and constant vigilance would hopefully ease our pooch’s quality of life. He’s been having a very terrible time lately, should I consider euthanasia?

    • Euthanasia is a rather sensitive option during these trying times. It takes a lot of discussion especially if you are still not firm with the decision. You may want to discuss this with your veterinarian, and correlate it with the current health status and prognosis of your dog.

  • lolly

    We traced Wheezer’s seizures back to inbreeding and the nutritional deficient diet the mother had received.
    So for Wheezer, his grand mal seizures began at age 3 and with nutritionally rich homemade food, plus homeopathic specifics for brain nutrition, he lived past 17. Monte Wheezer was a 6 pound Yorkie. Still love him, still miss him.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Lolly. Wheezer definitely outlived his years and I believe he’s still looking after you until now.

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