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Canine Epilepsy and Seizures

by Katie McKay | Mar 26, 2015

Learning a ton about medical conditions in dogs has been a given over the last four years as I have proudly served as the NRGRR medical manager. What I have also learned is the serious lack of good information out there available to pet owners. It’s seriously shocking. So let’s hit on one of those topics today and talk about epilepsy and seizures.

Epilepsy is actually a seizure condition that has no known cause. Seizures can be caused by different reasons like organ failure, trauma, brain tumors and infections, but with epilepsy, those typical causes are absent. This makes epilepsy difficult to predict when seizures will strike and why. Some seizures are so small you may not even notice them, but sometimes  the body is subjected to things that can’t be controlled like twitching and muscle tension and tightening of the head, arms or legs. You might see your dog with a far-away look or twitching in part of the face, this is known as a “focal seizure”. Sometimes a dog can fall down and experience some muscle tension, usually called a petit mal seizure. A dog who falls over may bark, clench his teeth, paddle and lose control of bladder and bowels is known as a grand mal seizure. Seizures can last a few seconds to a minutes and this is an important piece of the puzzle to treating your dog and making sure he/she gets the proper care.

Young dogs are more often diagnosed with epilepsy because possible inherited genetic components tend to show up earlier in life. Obviously the goal would be to identify the genes that cause epilepsy and then avoid breeding those dogs. And if a dog has seizures, they shouldn’t be bred, but as you know, not everyone plays the common sense game. To be fair, there is still a lot we don’t know including if there is a direct connection to genetics and epilepsy. Given that it affects many different breeds that also complicates things. If you are interested in more science, let me know, I’m happy to send you some reliable reading and information. I digress…

In an older dog, perhaps 7, 8 years or more, causes are more likely to be medical, like brain tumors, thyroid issues, organ failure, etc. I’m not saying this is always the case, but the discussion with your vet will swing one way or the other depending on your dog’s age. It’s just the more likely scenario and with science we like to start there.

For all dogs of all ages, there are plenty of other causes. There are about a million things lying around your house and yard and that your dog is exposed to every day that put them at risk to toxic exposures, us too! If that’s the reason for the seizure, it may just be a symptom that you can actually see and you need to have him checked out as soon as possible….particularly if his condition gets worse. Don’t worry if you don’t have any idea what happened or what will happen, that’s pretty much a given with this condition, at least for a while. Be careful about jumping to conclusions too because just like you have no idea what made your dog throw up last week and now he’s fine, that can be the case here too. One seizure does not mean the end of the world. Some dogs may have one, we may never figure out why, and then never have another one the rest of their life. Some dogs may have only 1 or 2 a year and never need to be on medication. You need to be armed with information about your dog’s behavior when you visit the vet. They will contribute the medical testing information and together you can decide how to proceed.

Believe it or not, if your dog has a seizure, it is not a medical emergency UNLESS your dog has more than one seizure within 30 minutes or continues to seize for more than 4 or 5 minutes. Your job is to watch, as hard as that can be, and take notes, make a video if you can.  All of this information is extremely helpful to your vet who will be trying to get to the bottom of why this happen. Keep them safe from hurting themselves and write down everything that happen before, after and during the seizure. Immediately after a seizure, your dog will likely feel confused and disoriented and may wander or pace. He may still be drooling and may also be unresponsive to you or even come to you for affection and comfort. This can be a short lived or last for several days. Again, this is all stuff you want to write down to make sure you have the information to give to your vet.

Dogs that continue to have seizures with no other obvious medical cause can go on medications to help control seizures. The goal with medication is one seizure per month, it is not a cure. The good news is that there are wonderful medications on the market available to pets, however they do come with side effects and can be costly so deciding to start using them is a good discussion to have with your vet. Changes in nutrition, exercise patterns and specific routines have also helped dogs (and their owners) reduce the number and severity of seizures and maintain great quality of life.

There are more than enough articles about epilepsy on the internet, so educate yourself with reliable sources and then take that information with you when you discuss with your vet. My hope is that these blog posts can give you a general idea and overview of what to expect in certain medical situations and to some extent take away the scary unknown. Sharing experiences is invaluable!

Cheers!