Epilepsy in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options
It’s one of the most terrifying things for a dog parent to see: Their beloved companion falls to the ground, twitching and shaking uncontrollably. This keeps up for a minute or longer, perhaps accompanied by incontinence, drooling, or foaming at the mouth. Then, it stops and your dog gets to their feet again.
What just happened?
Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological disorders in dogs. The word “epilepsy” is a general term that describes a variety of neurological abnormalities causing recurring seizures. A dog that experiences more than one episode of seizures is usually considered epileptic.
Epilepsy in dogs is complicated, and there isn’t always a definitive underlying cause for the condition. And just because a dog has a seizure doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has epilepsy.
Luckily, epileptic dogs can enjoy a good quality of life when their parents are well-educated on the issue and take steps to keep their canine companion healthy. Let’s take a closer look at the causes of epilepsy in dogs, what a seizure might look like, and how to deal with the problem.
What Causes Epilepsy in Dogs?
Epilepsy is often a chronic, lifelong medical problem for dogs, just like it is for humans. The seizures associated with epilepsy are caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Generally, veterinarians classify canine epilepsy into three main categories: structural, idiopathic, or of an unknown cause.
Structural epilepsy is epilepsy that occurs because of damage to or malformation of the brain. The physical structure of the dog’s brain is literally changed, resulting in neurological damage that leads to abnormal electrical functions and creates seizures.
A variety of things could cause damage to the brain or cause the brain to form unnaturally. A brain tumor is one example. A stroke, head trauma, insufficient blood supply, or inflammatory brain disease could also lead to structural epilepsy.
A case of idiopathic epilepsy is one without an identifiable structural cause, but veterinarians assume it to be hereditary. That’s right — epilepsy can be passed down from parent dogs to their puppies. When a case of epilepsy is assumed to be hereditary in nature, veterinarians recommend those dogs are not bred in order to keep the disorder from being passed along.
If a dog between the ages of 1-5 is exhibiting repeat seizures but receives a normal neurological evaluation, has no known structural abnormalities in the brain, and has no known exposure to toxins or other environmental factors that could cause seizures, they’ll likely be diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy.
Epilepsy of Unknown Cause
This type of epilepsy refers to those cases in which a structural cause is the most likely culprit, but a specific structural cause hasn’t been found. The cause isn’t thought to be genetic in nature or caused by environmental factors, and a structural cause can’t be identified — therefore, the cause is simply unknown.
Sometimes, a dog can experience a seizure but not have epilepsy. This is called having a reactive seizure — a seizure that results as a response to some kind of stimuli. Stimuli could include:
- Exposure to a toxin
- Low blood sugar
- Kidney failure
- Electrolyte disorders
- Repeated exposure to a flashing light or a loud noise
Of these causes, toxin exposure and low blood sugar are the two most common in dogs.
It’s important to understand that a dog who suffers a reactive seizure does not have epilepsy — the seizure happened as a result of another issue. Technically, reactive seizures are not considered to be epilepsy, although you may still hear many people refer to these type of seizures as “epileptic seizures.”
What Do Seizures Look Like in Dogs?
Whatever the cause might be, a seizure looks scary when your dog is experiencing one. That’s especially true if it’s your dog’s first seizure.
When you know what a seizure looks like and whether or not your particular breed of dog is predisposed to experiencing seizures, you’ll know right away what’s happening. That means you can take quick action to make sure your dog stays safe.
Types of Seizures
There are two basic types of seizures in dogs: generalized and local.
Generalized seizures affect both sides of the brain, and therefore, both sides of the body. They typically last between a few seconds and a few minutes. Generalized seizures are also sometimes called grand mal seizures.
The signs of a generalized seizure typically include involuntary muscle movements and sudden losses or increases in muscle tone. Essentially, twitching and shaking are the most visible signs of a generalized or grand mal seizure. Drooling and involuntary urination or defecation are also more common in generalized seizures. A dog may or may not experience loss of consciousness during the episode.
Focal seizures involve abnormal electrical activity happening in only one part of the brain, not all of it. As a result, side effects are seen in only one part or on one side of the body. For example, twitching in the face, padding of a single limb, or repeated chewing or chomping motions might be symptoms of a focal seizure.
Symptoms like drooling, vomiting, or dilated pupils could also be caused by a focal seizure. These symptoms may only last for a few seconds. However, focal seizures can transition to both sides of the brain, becoming a generalized seizure in only a few moments.
There are also other terms that may be used to describe your dog’s specific seizures, like:
- Cluster seizures: a group of seizures that occur in a short time period, typically two or more seizures in a 24-hour period.
- Tonic seizures: a seizure in which your dog’s muscles stiffen for several minutes.
- Tonic-clonic seizures: a seizure in which the tonic seizure is followed by short jerking movements.
- Status epilepticus: a serious medical condition that involves a single seizure lasting more than five minutes or multiple seizures that follow one another consecutively without stopping.
While any dog can suffer a seizure, epilepsy — especially idiopathic epilepsy — is more common in certain breeds. Genetic epilepsy most commonly manifests between 10 months to 3 years of age, but seizures can happen as early as 6 months of age and continue to age 5 or above, when they usually start to occur less frequently.
These are some of the dog breeds most prone to epilepsy and other types of seizures:
- Australian Shepherds
- Belgian Tervurens
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Border Collies
- English Springer Spaniels
- German Shepherds
- Irish Setters
- Labrador Retrievers
- Miniature Schnauzers
- Siberian Huskies
What Do I Do If My Dog Has a Seizure?
When you see your dog having a seizure, the most important thing is to keep him or her safe until the seizure has passed. The first priority is to move your dog away from any hard or sharp objects that their body could strike, potentially causing harm.
Talk to your dog in a calm voice to reassure him or her while the seizure is progressing, but take care to keep your hands away from your dog’s mouth and face. They could bite you, even by accident. Try to remember to take note of the specific symptoms that your dog displays, how long the seizure lasts, and what happens during the postictal period. The postictal period is the time right after a seizure, when your dog might display behavioral changes or other medical symptoms.
If you have more than one dog at home, it’s safest to keep your other pets away from the dog who is experiencing the seizure. That way, there’s no risk of the seizing dog accidentally biting the healthy dog, or of the healthy dog attacking the seizing dog out of fear or confusion.
Once all seizure activity has passed, keep talking to your dog to reassure them, then call your veterinarian to ask how to proceed.
If your dog’s seizure lasts longer than five minutes, their body temperature will rise and your dog will be at a risk of overheating, breathing trouble, and brain damage. Place a fan near your dog to blow air over them, and dab cool water on their paws to cool them down. Once the seizure has passed, rush your pet to the emergency room for immediate care.
How Is Epilepsy in Dogs Treated?
Your veterinarian will consider multiple factors including the type, length, frequency, and severity of the seizures that your dog experiences when it comes to treating your dog’s epilepsy. If your dog has only had one isolated seizure, your vet may simply perform a general examination and monitor your dog for a short period of time after the seizure.
Your veterinarian will probably perform a physical exam, as well as blood tests, including a complete blood cell count. Most often, veterinarians will prescribe antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) if your dog has experienced multiple seizures. The two most common AEDs for dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide.
Phenobarbital is the most effective AED and is usually well-tolerated by four-legged patients, but it does have a risk of serious side effects like liver disease, blood cell loss, and ataxia (loss of coordination). Potassium bromide is often prescribed for dogs who don’t respond well to phenobarbital, or it can be given in conjunction with phenobarbital for some canine patients.
Dogs with epilepsy will need to be monitored throughout their life with regular checkups, blood tests, and neurological exams. Some dogs benefit from diet upgrades or dietary supplements. When a dog is kept in good health and is monitored closely by their veterinarian, though, epilepsy isn’t usually considered life-threatening. Most pups with the condition can live happy, tail-wagging lives.
Epilepsy in Dogs: What to Remember
Just as many humans live with epilepsy every day, some of our canine companions do too. Thanks to modern veterinary medicine, epilepsy can usually be controlled very well. It’s all about working closely with your veterinarian to find the management regimen that works for your pooch.