What Causes Seizures in Dogs: 10 Most Common Causes + Treatment Options

What Causes Seizures in Dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

You always think that your dog is going to be with you forever, being the happy-go-lucky canine that he’s always been as a puppy. But then the unfortunate happens, and you notice that his health is starting to decline. At first, it may seem like simple things: being unsteady or acting confused. After all, we as humans sometimes go through these periods. But it can become something a lot more serious that we never account for, and it can start to put your dog’s health in jeopardy.

If these unsteadiness turns into your dog losing consciousness and it looks like he’s treading water, then your dog is experiencing a seizure. It can be a horrifying experience if you’ve never seen it before, and medical attention should be sought immediately after the first one. What causes seizures in dogs consists of a list of different conditions, each with their own methods of treatment.

They range from:

  • epilepsy
  • liver disease
  • kidney disease
  • eating poison
  • abnormal blood sugar levels
  • anemia
  • encephalitis
  • head injury
  • brain cancer
  • stroke

No matter what the cause of your dog’s seizures, it’s important that you remain calm throughout the episode so that you can get your dog medical attention. Your veterinarian will put your dog through a variety of tests, including blood work, to determine the cause of his seizures and help you to develop an effective treatment plan to lessen or even eliminate seizures from occurring in the future.

Seizures caused by epilepsy

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that can cause a dog to have sudden and uncontrollable physical attacks. Some of them result in a loss of consciousness, while others may have dog be fully awake throughout them. Epilepsy can be the idiopathic (for unknown reasons) or the result of genetic abnormalities. Idiopathic epilepsy is evidenced by brain lesions, and can result in an increase in severity and frequency of attacks if left untreated.

Dog epilepsy measure

Symptoms of an epileptic seizure include the dog falling onto its side, becoming stiff, salivating, urinating, defecating, chomping its jaw, and paddling with all four limbs. They can last anywhere from thirty to ninety seconds. These usually take place when the dog is resting or asleep, and are over before you can seek medical assistance.

The younger the dog, however, the more violent the seizures can be. Before the age of 2, the majority of dogs respond well to medication. The treatment for seizures is long-term, and should be carefully monitored. It is not recommended that medication be stopped abruptly, as this may trigger or worsen seizures.

Seizures caused by liver disease

What causes dogs to have seizures could be a problem with their livers. The liver is responsible for removing wastes from the blood and filtering it back to the rest of the body. When this starts to malfunction, then these toxins can be spread to the other organs, including the brain. This malfunction can lead to what is called hepatic encephalopathy, which is the result of too much ammonia in the body.

Some of the signs to look out for include being confused after meals, disorientation, head pressing, coma, sudden aggression, lethargy, dark urine, vomiting, diarrhea, and seizures. Examination of the liver is important in determining the cause of the liver malfunction, and all other symptoms should be monitored and treated accordingly in the meantime.

Diet for dog with liver disease

Medications can be prescribed once a diagnosis has been arrived at, and your dog’s diet should be altered in order to reduce the stress being placed on the liver and kidneys. Seizure-control medications will also be prescribed, as well as zinc supplements to be added to your dog’s food in order to reduce the chances of seizures happening in the future and to help your dog metabolize his food properly.

Seizures caused by kidney failure

Kidney disease and failure can occur in a dog of any age, but senior dogs are most likely to develop kidney problems. A large number of symptoms can occur, depending on the original source of the condition. Kidney failure can be caused by disease, urinary blockage, diabetes, lymphoma, genetics, or some medications. Along with seizures, there may be weight loss, depression, diarrhea and vomiting, acute blindness, blood in the urine, and increased thirst, just to name a few.

Kidney disease

Although there is no cure or treatment options that reverse chronic kidney failure, there are medications that can help with the management of the symptoms in order to maintain the quality of your dog’s life. A blood test and urinalysis conducted by your vet can confirm the diagnosis.

Seizures caused by poison

Sometimes your dog can get into areas of the home where he shouldn’t be and ingest harmful chemicals. It’s important that you dog proof your cabinets and doors to prevent your dog from eating toxic substances that can lead to the onset of seizures. Substances such as antidepressants, tobacco, aspirin, alcohol, marijuana, drain cleaners, gasoline, insecticides, and furniture polish can induce seizures when ingested.

Outside of the home, there are natural substances and animals that may also cause seizures in your dog when they are eaten or they have bitten your dog, including horse chestnuts, venomous snakes, the brown recluse spider, the Colorado River toad, and the Florida marine toad. It is important to keep an eye on your dog when outdoors, and to keep medications and certain substances out of his reach.

Seizures caused by blood sugar levels

No one ever really thinks of a dog becoming diabetic, but it is a reality. Dogs do require some amount of sugar in their blood, in order to maintain the functions of the brain. The organ has a very limited function of storing any glucose that is received, and so is the first to be affected when blood sugar becomes too low. When this happens, your dog will experience seizures. This is more prevalent in puppies, since their livers are still too underdeveloped to store any glycogen for the body to use.

Low blood sugar — known as hypoglycemia — can be easily treated once it is diagnosed, depending on the severity of the disease. A few tablespoons of vanilla ice cream can be dribbled over your dog’s food in order to maintain his sugar levels.

Blood sugar levels at dogs

If a seizure occurs when his blood sugar is too low, you can rub some of the ice cream along the inside of his cheek. Do not add too much, and keep your fingers away from his teeth.

Some of the sources of this condition include:

  • your dog is not eating often enough
  • there is lack of protein in your dog’s diet
  • Addison’s Disease: the body does not produce or store glucose properly
  • too much exercise
  • pancreatic tumors known as insulinomas
  • abnormal function of the hormones

Seizures caused by anemia

Anemia is defined as the low count of red blood cells amongst the other components that constitute blood. This can be caused by blood loss, the destruction of the red blood cells themselves, or a reduction in the production of red blood cells. Cancer, toxins, genetic defects, immunosuppressant diseases, iron deficiency or a reaction to drugs can lead to any of these causes from occurring. Due to the wide nature of anemia, it can affect a dog of any age or gender, though certain causes may be the result of age. Seizures can be a common sight to see in cases of extreme anemia.

Other signs to look for are weakness, pale gums, blood in the urine or feces, vomiting, weight loss, distension of the abdomen, or increased respiratory rate. However, some dogs may show no signs at all in the case of chronic anemia, as they adapt to the conditions over time. The best way to treat anemia is to focus on the underlying cause, though if the condition is severe, your dog may require a or multiple blood transfusion(s). It can be difficult to prevent, due to the multiple causes of the disease.

Seizures caused by encephalitis or meningitis

Encephalitis is a terrible brain disease that results in the inflammation of the membranes. Symptoms can include fever, depression, sudden aggression, seizures, and coma. The most common cause of bacterial encephalitis is canine distemper, while the viral form of the disease is the result of rabies, pseudorabies, and the herpes virus. Bacterial encephalitis is caused by the entry of bacteria organisms entering the circulatory system and traveling to the brain.

Fungal brain infections are quite rare causes, as well as tick-borne diseases and post-vaccines. Chewing on lead-containing products such as paint and drywall can also result in encephalitis. The lead results in an alteration of the brain metabolism, which results in inflammation and swelling. This usually is preceded by vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation.

Meningitis is an infection of the surface of the brain and the spinal canal. Symptoms may seem similar, but they are two different diseases. Meningitis affects the surrounding meninges of the brain and not the brain itself. It can be caused by bacteria traveling through the body’s fluids, or through infected bite wounds in the head and/or neck region. In both cases, corticosteroids and anticonvulsants are typically prescribed in order to control the sometimes, and anti-viral or antibacterial will be prescribed in order to deal with the underlying cause of the condition.

Seizures caused by head injury

In very extreme cases, your dog could experience a head injury that isn’t fatal but can lead to fatal results. Because the brain is surrounded by bone and a layer of fluid to keep it safe, it takes a serious hit to cause injury to the brain.

However, when it does occur, whether by a car accident, a fall, or a blow to the head, you should seek medical attention immediately, especially if your dog starts having seizures. They can occur immediately after the injury or some time afterwards, but in either case, they can have very detrimental effects on a dog’s health. A seizure can increase pressure within the brain and constrict blood flow, which can worsen the initial effects of the injury. Seizures that occur long after a brain injury has healed are the result of scars that have formed where brain tissue has died.

Seizures caused by brain cancer

Cancer is never a word that any pet owner wants to hear when they’re at the vet’s office. The situation can be even worse if the diagnosis says that your dog has brain cancer. Whether they develop in the membranes that cover the brain or from an abnormal growth in the pituitary gland, these cancerous growths can affect the way your dog behaves and functions. Seizures that are accompanied by abnormal behaviour and altered mental status, oversensitivity to pain, and problems with vision are all signs of the presence of a brain tumor.

There are no real known causes for brain tumors, though genetics, environment, the immune system and diet may play some part. Due to the fact that there is no real known cause, brain tumors are difficult to prevent.

Dog breed at risk of cancer

The best way to diagnose brain cancer is to take a biopsy of the growth itself. X-Rays and ultrasounds will likely be done to detect the presence of other growths throughout the body to ensure that other organs and systems are not being compromised as well.

Once diagnosed, there are three primary treatments for brain cancer: chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. The former two treatments can help the tumor to shrink on its own, while the latter removes the tumor altogether. Medications may be prescribed to prevent the growth of future tumors and to cope with the side effects, such as seizures.

Seizures caused by stroke

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a seizure and a stroke, as the visible symptoms are mostly the same. A seizure is an electrical malfunction of the brain, while a stroke is the result of a physical problem, such as a blocked artery or bleeding occurs inside the brain.

However, a stroke can cause seizures, so they do go hand in hand somewhat. The most obvious signs for both are problems with balance and movement. Bowel and bladder control are also problems that your dog may face, so be prepared to deal with a mess if this isn’t the first time he’s experienced a seizure or a stroke.

Dog and stroke

When a seizure does occur, medical assistance as soon as possible can improve the recovery chances for your dog and minimize the chances of another one occurring in the future. When one does occur, he should be removed from hazards but mostly left alone. Once he recovers consciousness, he should be left alone under a watchful eye to recover. Anti-seizure medications can be prescribed for your dog if it occurs more than once.

Dogs are known to recover quite well from strokes within a few weeks of having one. However, there may be some permanent damage or changes that occur in your dog’s behaviour that cannot be remedied.

What to do when your dog is having a seizure

Seizures don’t cause much pain for a dog, but left untreated, they can lead to bigger problems. One way to see if your dog is really having a seizure is to look at his pupils. Gently lift the eyelid and shine a light into his eye. If his pupils do not react, or react slowly, then your dog is having a seizure. You should not try to move a dog that is having a seizure unless he is in a dangerous place where harm may result. If you do, you should gently drag him by the hind legs.

Care should be taken, as he may defecate and/or urinate during the seizure; having newspapers or towels ready in this emergency can certainly help to keep your home clean. You can touch your dog as much as you need to provide comfort for the both of you, but stay away from his head region. His jaws may twitch and result in a very painful bite.

Canine seizures

If this is your dog’s first seizure, then medical attention should be sought immediately. Once you’ve received a diagnoses there is typically no reason to seek emergency care for future seizures unless they last more than five minutes, or if he has more than two seizures in a row in a single episode. It’s important to take note of the time of the seizure and how long it lasts so that you can inform your veterinarian.

Seizures are not something that should be taken lightly, but the worst thing that you can do is panic when your dog is experiencing one. Remaining calm can help you to take the necessary actions that you need to help your dog get the medical attention that he deserves. If you would like to prepare yourself for such an occasion, it may be best that you attend canine first aid classes so that you can learn the right thing to do in the situation in minimizing the damage that may result from your dog’s seizures. You can contact your veterinarian for any further information.

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.