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Dog Seizures: A Guide To Helping Your Pup

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There are few things more heartbreaking for a dog owners than witnessing your beloved canine companion have a seizure. It can leave you feeling helpless and terrified. What can you do? How can you comfort your pup during this time of distress?

The good news is, while seizures are scary, they can be managed, and there are even ways to potentially reduce occurrences. Furthermore, there are a number of things you can do as a pet parent to make sure that your epileptic dog stays safe while experiencing a seizure.

What is a Seizure?

A seizure is a temporary, involuntary disturbance of normal cognitive brain function. They may also be referred to as fits or convulsions. Uncontrollable muscle actions typically accompany seizures.  A dog who experiences seizures will often have them during times of changing brain activity (i.e. when they feel excited, during feeding, etc). 

Studies show that up to 5% of all dogs suffer from seizures. In fact, seizures are one of the most common neurological conditions diagnosed in dogs.

Seizure Definition 

The medical definition of seizure is uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain.

This electrical activity may produce a physical convulsion, secondary physical signs, thought disturbances, or a combination of symptoms.

The scientific term for seizure is “ictus.”

Canine Epilepsy Definition 

Epilepsy is a term used to describe repeated episodes of seizures.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs?

sick dog lying on the floor

There are many causes of seizures in dogs. The most common cause, however is idiopathic epilepsy.

Idiopathic epilepsy is an inherited condition, although experts aren’t exactly sure what causes it to develop.  Additional causes of seizures include:

  • Liver disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Brain tumor
  • Brain trauma
  • Toxins (i.e. poisoning)
  • Anemia
  • Infectious diseases
  • Low or high blood sugar
  • Electrolyte problems
  • Stroke

Breeds At Risk of Canine Seizures 

Interestingly enough, there are a number of dog breeds that are at a higher risk of developing seizures and epilepsy.

These breeds include:

  • Basset Hound
  • Beagle
  • Belgian Tervuren
  • Collies
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Golden Retriever
  • Keeshond
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Schnauzer
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Vizsla

While these dogs are at a higher risk, any dog has the potential to have seizures.

baby schnauzer

Types of Seizures | Seizure Symptoms 

There are many types of dog seizures. However, they are typically classified in one of three ways:

  • Generalized seizures – which can be either mild or tonic-clonic (sometimes referred to as grand mal seizures)
  • Focal or partial seizures
  • Focal or partial seizures accompanied by secondary generalization

Specific symptoms will vary depending on the type of seizure that your dog is experiencing.

dog in pain

Generalized Seizure 

A generalized seizure involves the whole body. It results from both hemispheres of the brain misfiring.

A generalized seizure can last from 30-90 seconds. Recovery can be immediate or take up to 24 hours.

Underneath the generalized seizure “umbrella,” dogs can experience tonic, tonic-clonic (grand mal), clonic, atonic, myoclonic and absence seizures (petit mal seizures), with the most common being grand mal.

Generalized Seizure Symptoms 

A dog experiencing a generalized seizure will often lose consciousness and fall. It is also common for their limbs to twitch and jerk.

It is also possible for your dog to stop breathing during a generalized seizure. Approximately 10-30 seconds after, your dog may chomp their jaw, involuntarily defecate or urinate, paddle their legs, whine, bark, and/or their pupils may dilate.

Grand Mal Seizure (AKA Tonic-Clonic Seizure) 

One of the most common types of seizures found in dogs is referred to as a grand mal seizure. Grand mal seizures typically present warning signs up to a day before the seizure occurs.

These warning signs include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Mood changes

Grand mal seizures (also known as tonic-clonic seizures) generally last one minute and are typically associated with epilepsy, low levels of blood sugar, and salt or drug toxicity.

Focal Seizure |  Partial Seizure 

Localization characterizes these seizures. Focal seizures occur when a small area of nerve cells misfire in one hemisphere of the brain.

Depending upon the dog’s level of awareness when it occurs, the seizures are either referred to as simple or complex.

In the majority of cases, your dog will remain conscious during a focal or partial seizure. However, consciousness will be more impaired when a complex seizure occurs.

Focal Seizure |  Partial Seizure Symptoms 

Common symptoms of a focal or partial seizure include:

  • Twitching in one side of the dog’s face
  • Jerking in one side of the dog’s body
  • Turning of the head to one side
  • A curving of the dog’s body to one side
  • Moving only one limb

Many conditions cause partial seizures including:

  • Tumors
  • Trauma to the head
  • Brain infections
  • Congenital abnormalities
  • Stroke

Furthermore, partial seizures are often misdiagnosed as generalized seizures.

However, if your veterinarian is able to determine where the seizure began, it will help to differentiate the seizures.

What is Status Epilepticus?

We briefly mentioned that epilepsy is a condition that describes repeated seizure episodes.

Status epilepticus can often be confused with cluster seizures. While they are similar in that your dog may experience several seizures in a short time frame, dogs with status epilepticus do not regain consciousness between episodes.

Status epilepticus is a serious, life-threatening condition that requires veterinary intervention immediately.

What Happens During a Seizure? 

When seizures occur, they typically happen in a series of phases.

Prodrome 

The phase referred to as prodrome typically occurs days or hours before the actual seizure.

In this phase, pet owners often see initial changes in their dog’s behavior and mood.

Aura or Pre Ictal Phase 

The aura or pre-ictal phase can last a few seconds or a few hours.

In this phase, the dog will often become nervous, needy, or anxious, and may seek out attention from their owner. You may also find your dog acting restless, whining, shaking, or salivating. The dog behaves in a way as if they know something is about to happen.

Ictal/Ictus/Seizure Phase 

This phase can last between a few seconds to five minutes.

In the ictus phase, your dog may pass out and experience involuntary muscle spasms and actions.

Additional symptoms associated with this phase are:

  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Twitching
  • Chomping
  • Drooling
  • Urination
  • Defecation

Post Ictus/Ictal Phase 

During the postictal phase, your dog will likely be disoriented and confused. The dog may pace back and forth or be unresponsive.

Additionally, temporary vision and/or hearing loss may occur.

Increased thirst or hunger, as well as excessive salivation, is also common in this phase. The post-ictus phase can last from a few minutes up to several days.

x-ray of dog brain

What To Do For An Epileptic Dog?

As terrifying as seizures may look, they actually aren’t painful for your dog. However, they can ultimately cause a great deal of confusion. As such, it’s common for pet parents to wonder what they can do to comfort an epileptic dog.

If your dog is having a seizure, it is essential to try to keep the external environment as calm and as quiet as possible. Bright lights and loud noises can make the seizure worse as well as cause further seizures to occur.

Additionally, make sure that all other pets are kept out of the room. This goes hand in hand with keeping the noise and stress levels at an absolute minimum. Some dogs may become aggressive after the seizure, so this may also avoid fights. 

It is important to protect your pet from injuring itself during or after a seizure. Make sure there are no potential hazards in the area.

Dogs are unconscious, so do not try to arouse or startle them out of a seizure. Also never place your hands near a dog’s mouth during the seizure, as you risk being bitten.

Furthermore, it is important to record as much information about the seizure as possible. This information will help your vet determine the cause and proper way to treat future seizures. Immediate veterinary care should be sought if the seizure lasts more than three minutes or if your pet has two or more seizures in a twenty-four-hour period. 

How to Prevent Dog Seizures?

Preventing seizures will ultimately depend on what is causing them in the first place.

As we previously mentioned, poisoning can often result in your dog experiencing seizures. If you suspect that poisoning is at the root of the problem, be sure to remove any potential culprits from in or around your home. 

These include:

  • Lead-infused paint
  • Golf balls
  • Foil attached to bottle tops
  • Batteries
  • Plumbing or building materials
  • Linoleum
  • Sugar-free gum
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Homemade playdough (salt dough)
  • Rodenticides/insecticides
  • Mushrooms
  • Sago palm
  • Illegal drugs
  • Medications (with potential to cause hypoglycemia)
  • Caffeine
  • Dark chocolate 

Additionally, the stress associated with loud noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks can also be at the root of isolated seizures. The best way to prevent these types of seizures is to remain calm and keep your home environment as peaceful as possible. Experts suggest playing calming music and talking sweetly to your pup.

Additionally, lightning has the tendency to sneak up and scare all of us, humans included. Pet parents can create a distraction from the lightning outside by turning on all of the lights inside.  

Finally, it is imperative that pet owners get their dog’s blood values checked regularly to rule out any liver or kidney disease as well as low blood glucose levels. Your dog’s diet is extremely important and ensuring that they get all of the proper nutrients they need can help prevent seizures from occurring.

Seizure & Epilepsy Treatment

Seizure treatment typically begins if:

  • The dog experiences more than one seizure a month
  • The dog has clusters of seizures where one seizure is immediately followed by another one
  • The dog experiences grand mal seizures that are either very severe or lengthy in duration
  • The postictal disorientation phase is severe
  • The dog has a history of brain trauma/injury or a brain lesion on advanced imaging

Conventional Anti-Seizure Medications

Once the anti-seizure medication is initiated, it must be given for the remainder of the dog’s life. Studies show that if anticonvulsant medication is started and then discontinued, the dog’s chance of developing more severe seizures in the future greatly increases.

The two drugs most commonly used to treat seizures in dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide (K-BroVet chewable tablets). 

Additional newer medications include zonisamide and levetiracetam extended-release treatment.

These medications require a prescription from your veterinarian along with routine veterinary check-ups in order to monitor the efficacy of the drug.

Conventional Anti-Seizure Medication Side Effects

At the end of the day, seizures and epilepsy are scary conditions. It only makes sense that dog owners would do just about anything to relieve their pup of the stress and discomfort associated with dog seizures.

That said, it’s still important to do your research on anti-seizure medications so that you can better monitor your dog’s health as you start introducing new treatment options into their health regime.

We always encourage pet parents to do their due diligence by researching any medication their dog may be prescribed. By visiting the medication’s website, you can easily review a comprehensive list of any of the drug’s potential side effects.

Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly prescribed anti-seizure drugs and their reported side effects.

Phenobarbital 

  • Possible side effects: anxiety, lethargy, increased thirst, increased urination, increased appetite, anemia, weight gain

Potassium bromide 

  • Possible side effects: changes in appetite, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, loss of coordination, increased thirst, increased urination

Levetiracetam (Keppra)

  • Possible side effects: drowsiness, changes in behavior, vomiting, diarrhea

Zonisamide 

  • Possible side effects: loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea, short-term sedation

It is very important to monitor drug levels and liver values as recommended by your veterinarian. This way, you can hopefully catch any changes early enough to be able to reverse them. 

We highly encourage our readers to consult with a holistic veterinarian and neurologist to learn about all the different treatment options available and determine what is best for their individual pet.  

dog wrapped in blanket

Holistic Anti-Seizure Treatment 

We are lucky to be living in a time when holistic wellness is making great strides forward in the ways that we are able to help our pets.

That said, there are holistic options available that pet parents can turn to for dogs with seizures.

Food Therapy 

A specific diet can make a world of difference for a dog suffering from seizures and epilepsy.

Experts recommend ketogenic diets that are low in carbohydrates and high in fats. Studies have shown that these diets are highly beneficial for treating seizures. In fact, diet is incredibly essential in supporting the normal healthy function of all your dog’s organs and internal systems.

For instance, in 2017, Purina released a new veterinary therapeutic that uses medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) as the fat source, which can add to increased seizure control in conjunction with medications.

We recommend consulting with a holistic vet in terms of what diet changes will best suit your dog’s individual needs. One can also contract a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to help formulate a home-cooked diet as another option.

Acupuncture 

Studies have also shown that traditional Chinese medicine such as acupuncture has been effective in helping dogs with seizures.

Of course, like with most great things, acupuncture works best with consistency. Therefore, this may not be the best option or a realistic treatment method for some dog owners who need more cost-effective care plans for their dog.

However, it is comforting to know that such options do exist.

Dog Seizures: A Final Thought

It can be troubling to see your beloved four-legged friend face any kind of ailment. Dog seizures, in particular, can be extremely heart-wrenching for a dog owner to witness.

Using the strategies discussed in this article, however, you can provide comfort to your dog the next time he or she experiences a seizure by doing simple things such as creating a calming environment and removing anything hazardous from the area.

And when it comes to potentially reducing seizure occurrences, holistic options like food therapy and acupuncture may be helpful for your dog and are worth exploring.

As always, consult with your holistic vet regarding the appropriate way to move forward for your individual pup as you begin to develop a care plan specific to their needs.