There are few things as frightening as seeing your dog have a seizure. Not only do you worry about your best friend’s safety, but you’re also gripped by a truly helpless feeling, as it’s nearly impossible to know what to do in such a stressful situation.
Epilepsy is extremely common in dogs, though, so if you’ve witnessed your dog suffer from a seizure, you’re not alone. Here, we’ll fill you in on everything that you need to know about this unfortunate neurological condition, including what to do the next time that a seizure strikes.
What Is Canine Epilepsy?
Simply put, epilepsy is a disease that causes recurring, unprovoked seizures marked by a loss of muscle control in the affected dog. These seizures can last a few seconds or several minutes, and they may be one-offs or clusters of several seizures back to back.
The seizures are caused by abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the dog’s brain. The condition can be hereditary, or it can be caused by structural damage to the brain. Some epilepsy also happens for unknown reasons.
Canine epilepsy is similar to human epilepsy, but it’s not identical. Many people use human terms and experiences to describe what happens to afflicted dogs, but this can often create confusion. Canine epilepsy isn’t as widely studied as the human variety, and it’s not yet clear whether the causes, symptoms, and treatments correlate between the species.
It’s also worth noting that by definition, epilepsy only describes recurring seizures. If your dog has a single seizure and never experiences another one, then there is something else at play, but the animal wouldn’t be said to suffer from epilepsy. Also, if the seizure has a clear cause (eating poison, for example), then it’s likely not considered to be epileptic.
Epilepsy can be fairly benign, or it can be life-threatening, depending on the length and frequency of the seizures. Regardless, you should take your dog to the vet immediately if you suspect that they’ve suffered from a seizure.
Symptoms of Epilepsy in Dogs
Epilepsy has a single symptom and that’s a seizure. How do you recognize if your dog is having a seizure, though?
Seizures can occur without warning, but many dogs will look dazed or unsteady right before one starts. They can lose their balance and begin to stagger, or they may fall over completely.
Many dogs also paddle with their legs, giving the impression that they’re swimming.
Once the seizure is over (or once the seizures are over, if your dog suffers from cluster attacks), they may still seem unsteady on their feet. They may also be disoriented, clumsy, and even temporarily blind. Many dogs suffer from uncontrollable drooling for a few hours, and it’s common for them to find a place to hide afterward.
The Different Types of Seizures That Can Afflict Dogs
There are actually three different types of seizures that dogs can suffer from, and they’re not all created equal.
The most common is the generalized seizure (which is also called a “grand mal” seizure). These affect both sides of the brain, so the entire muscular system is also affected as a result. They can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
Another common type is the focal seizure. In focal seizures, only one side of the brain suffers the abnormal electrical activity, so the dog’s entire body isn’t affected. During a focal seizure, only one side of a dog’s body is likely to be affected, and they usually don’t last long.
However, in some dogs, focal seizures can transition into generalized seizures.
The least common type of seizure is the psychomotor seizure. These are marked by strange behavior that lasts a few minutes or so. During a psychomotor seizure, your dog might chase invisible objects or attack things that aren’t there. They may also try to attack their own bodies, usually their tails.
Part of the issue with diagnosing psychomotor seizures is that they often resemble normal (albeit strange) canine behavior. One way to tell if your dog is suffering from this type of seizure is if they always demonstrate the same behaviors every time.
What Causes Canine Epilepsy?
The most common type of epilepsy in dogs is called “idiopathic” epilepsy. This is an inherited condition, but it’s unclear what causes the condition in the first place. However, certain breeds (specifically Retrievers) seem to be more prone to being afflicted. Frequent inbreeding is also thought to play a part in genetic epilepsy.
Structural epilepsy, on the other hand, has a clear, identifiable cause in the dog’s brain. This could be due to a blood clot, tumor, infection, trauma, or other condition. This type of epilepsy may or may not be curable; the epilepsy may also be the least of your concerns, depending on what’s causing it.
A third type of seizure is called the “reactive seizure.” This type of seizure has a clear and temporary cause, and it’s not considered to be epileptic in nature. However, certain things that can trigger reactive seizures can also cause trauma to the brain, which could lead to structural epilepsy down the road.
What Can Trigger Seizures in Dogs?
Many seizures strike without warning and have no apparent cause. This is especially true in dogs that suffer from idiopathic epilepsy.
Many dogs also have triggers that are unique to them, so you may identify an issue that affects your pup that’s not listed here.
If your dog suffers from epilepsy, it’s important to try to minimize the risk of a seizure. This can mean reducing their stress levels as much as possible (especially during traumatic incidents, like moving or bringing home a baby), making sure they eat a healthy diet regularly, and ensuring that their sleep isn’t disturbed.
If your vet prescribes medication to treat their epilepsy, it’s absolutely critical that you never miss a dose.
What to Do If Your Dog Has a Seizure
If your dog gives you advance warning that a seizure is about to occur, take advantage of the heads-up to try to move them to an area where they have room to convulse without hurting themselves. Failing that, try to remove any potentially hazardous items from the area.
This could mean moving furniture, taking breakable items off of shelves, or blocking stairs with a baby gate. Your dog will lose control of their motor function, and they can seriously injure themselves by accident if you’re not proactive.
Once the seizure begins, stay away from your dog. Remember, they’re not themselves during the seizure — they’ve literally lost control of their own brains — and they could bite you if you get too close. Dogs can’t swallow their tongues, so there’s no need to worry about that.
You should time the seizure as well. If it lasts longer than a few minutes, their temperature will rise, putting them at risk of overheating. Turn your air conditioning or a fan on, or spray them with cool water.
If the seizure continues for more than 5 minutes or if they have several while unconscious, you should get them to the vet immediately. You may have to transport them mid-seizure, in which case, you should protect your skin with thick gloves or other clothing. The vet may have to give them drugs to stop the seizure, and they may need treatment to bring down their body temperature or help them breathe.
Are Seizures Painful for Dogs?
No, dogs shouldn’t experience any pain during the seizure unless they manage to hurt themselves while convulsing. As long as you keep their immediate area free of hazards, they shouldn’t be in any discomfort.
However, once the seizure is over, the dog may be extremely scared or disoriented. This can put them at risk of injury, especially if they escape your home or yard as a result.
Try to comfort your dog after the seizure, but understand that a panicked dog is more likely to lash out, and pay attention to any signs that they don’t want you around.
What Treatment Options Are Available for Epileptic Dogs?
Assuming that there’s no clear underlying medical condition causing the seizures, most vets won’t treat seizures in dogs until the animal has had more than one a month, clusters of several seizures, or grand mal seizures that last longer than 5 minutes.
If they do decide to treat your dog, chances are that your pup will be given either phenobarbital and/or potassium bromide to prevent future seizures.
You should know, though, that once a dog begins taking anticonvulsant medication, they have to take it for the rest of their lives. There is evidence that discontinuing such medication puts dogs at risk of more severe seizures in the future. Also, it’s important to understand that the epilepsy will likely be something you treat, not cure.
If you start giving your dog epilepsy medication, you’ll need to try to give it to them at the same time every day, never missing a dose. You should also give them the prescribed dosage every time (meaning, don’t double up if you miss a dose).
Many people believe in using natural methods, such as improving your dog’s diet, to treat epilepsy. There is no clear evidence that this works, and there are dozens of diets that claim to be useful for this purpose. As a result, all we can do is urge you to do your own research and ask your vet for advice.
However, it seems clear that regardless of what you choose to feed them, keeping your dog on a consistent diet is important for preventing future seizures.
What Is the Prognosis for a Dog With Epilepsy?
It’s difficult to give a single, over-arching answer to this question, as it depends on a variety of factors.
With structural epilepsy, the prognosis will depend in large part on the nature of the underlying trauma. If it’s something serious, like a brain tumor, the prognosis can be quite grim. In other cases, though, your dog’s length and quality of life may be largely unaffected by the condition.
The length and severity of the seizures are other important factors. If the dog suffers from a single, short seizure, they’ll have much better odds than an animal that has cluster seizures or ones lasting longer than 5 minutes.
Want to learn more about other dog diseases and ailments?
- Canine Degenerative Myelopathy In Dogs – Symptoms, Treatments, & Disease Basics
- Distemper In Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
- Congestive Heart Failure In Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment
Featured Image Credit: thirawatana phaisalratana, Shutterstock