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All About Dog Seizures

by Molly Petrilla
Reviewed by Elizabeth Racine, DVM on 12.19.2019. Updated on 12.31.2019

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All About Dog Seizures

Overview

Severity: i Medium - High
Life stage: All
  • Roughly 5 percent of the canine population is diagnosed with recurring seizures.
  • A dog having a seizure may have body convulsions and lose conciousness.
  • Seizures typically don't have warning signs.
  • During a seizure, stay calm. Remove hazards that could harm your dog.
  • Daily medication may help dogs who have recurring seizures.

Watching a seizure take hold of your beloved dog can be terrifying—and unfortunately, it’s not as rare as you may think.

According to the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM), roughly 5 percent of the canine population is diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy—that is, recurrent seizures that have no other underlying cause. And epileptic dogs aren’t the only ones who experience seizures. 

Here, we explain the varied causes of dog seizures, what you can do if one occurs, and some of the long-term treatments available.

Can Dogs Have Seizures?

Just like humans, dogs can and do have seizures. A dog having a seizure may often look similar to a person having one, with behavior including: body convulsions, stiff or rigid limbs, falling over, loss of consciousness, drooling, loss of bowel or bladder control, and paddling of the legs. 

According to Ned Patterson—a professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and a member of the International Veterinary Epilepsy Task Force—dog seizures typically last under two minutes and then stop on their own.

Types of Seizures in Dogs

Generalized seizure: Formerly known as a grand mal seizure, a generalized seizure is one that affects the entire body. Dogs experiencing a generalized seizure may also lose consciousness. 

Focal seizures: Focal seizures begin in one part of the brain, and as a result, they’re localized to a specific area of the body. They may be limited to a single leg, to the head or face (usually twitching or blinking on one side), or to one side of the body. A focal seizure may or may not progress into a generalized seizure. 

Complex focal seizures: Also known as “fly-biting” or psychomotor seizures, these focal seizures in dogs typically involve a strange, very repetitive behavior—like seeming to bite at an invisible fly.

Cluster seizures: Officially defined as two or more seizures within a 24-hour period. If your dog is experiencing cluster seizures, Beth Boudreau—an assistant professor at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences—recommends contacting your veterinarian immediately, even if it’s outside normal hours, and preparing for a trip to the nearest animal hospital.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs?

causes of seizures in dogs

According to Patterson, in about 70 percent of all dogs who have repeated seizures, the diagnosis is idiopathic epilepsy—a neurological condition that appears to be more common, or at least harder to treat, in certain breeds. 

For the other 30 percent of dogs who experience seizures, causes vary. In older dogs, a seizure can be the first sign of a brain tumor. In very young dogs, it can be the result of a malformed brain. 

Other possible causes of seizures in dogs include: 

  • Low blood sugar due to a type of tumor
  • Over-administered insulin in a diabetic dog
  • Ingesting the artificial sweetener xylitol (found in sugar-free foods)
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Stroke-like events
  • Brain infections
  • Ingesting a toxin (such as lawn pesticide)

Patterson estimates that when dogs have seizures, in about 95 percent of cases, there are no triggers. In a very small number of dogs, stress, excitement, blinking lights, or something else specific may prompt a seizure, but “most of the time, it’s really random and unpredictable,” he says.  

Patterson adds that the closest link to any specific behavior is that seizures happen more often at night when dogs are asleep—specifically, during the deep sleep stage.

Dog Seizure Symptoms

Dog having a seizure on floor

There are usually no warning signs to seizures,” says Jerry Klein, the American Kennel Club’s chief veterinary officer. 

Humans with epilepsy report experiencing sensory changes before a seizure begins—often affecting their vision, sense of smell, or hearing—and “we have every reason to believe that dogs probably go through that as well, but we can’t ask them,” Boudreau says.  

Still, she notes that some pet parents do spot changes in their dog’s behavior before a seizure begins. Most often this involves acting anxious or fearful when there is no clear cause. “They can feel that things are not quite right,” she adds.

What to Do if Your Dog Is Having a Seizure

It may sound like a cliché—and feel almost impossible when you’re watching your dog shake and twitch on the floor—but try to stay calm. Most dog seizures are brief, lasting only two minutes or less, and will stop on their own. 

While there is nothing you can do to stop the seizure itself, you can help protect your dog while a seizure is happening. 

Scan the area for potential dangers. This includes furniture that they could hit their head on, stairs they could tumble down, a pool they could fall into. 

Move your dog to an open area. If possible, Boudreau recommends quickly moving your dog to a soft, open area—like a rug in the middle of a room—to avoid secondary injuries during the seizure.

Keep your dog’s mouth clear. Never put your hand or anything else in a dog’s mouth during a seizure—not even medication, since they could choke on it.

Time the seizure. Try to time how long the seizure lasts and note the specific behaviors you see. 

Try to record a video of the event. Boudreau says that while recording a video to show your veterinarian later is helpful, it shouldn’t come at the expense of keeping your dog safe during the seizure. 

Call your veterinarian. Once your dog’s seizure is over, Boudreau says it’s a good idea to let your veterinarian know with a quick phone call to the office. “Your ability to answer questions about what happened is going to be best right after it happened,” she adds.

If a seizure does not stop on its own—and your dog has been seizing for more than five minutes—Patterson recommends calling an emergency vet immediately.

What to Do Following a Dog Seizure 

While it can be excruciating to watch your dog experience a seizure, remember: “Dogs are not in pain [during a seizure], and even if they howl, urinate or defecate, it does not mean that the seizure is ‘better’ or ‘worse,’” Klein notes. 

Patterson says that after a seizure, dogs may be “out of it” for 30 seconds to a minute, and then seem anxious for another five to 10 minutes. By a few hours later, they are usually “totally normal” again, he says.

Diagnosing Dog Seizures

Veterinarian diagnosing seizures in a dog

Boudreau says that diagnosing idiopathic epilepsy in dogs is usually a process of elimination. “There is no test that says ‘this is what it is,’” she notes. Instead, veterinarians will try to rule out other medical conditions that may have caused the seizure. 

A thorough medical history and physical examination with neurologic exam, blood, and urine tests are standard, and some veterinarians may also test spinal fluid or perform an electroencephalogram (EEG) test. 

Depending on those findings, further diagnostics may include MRI or CT scans.

Dog Seizures: Treatment and Management

There is no cure for dog seizures, but there are treatments to help curb them.  

Patterson says that daily medication is typically recommended for dogs who are having seizures once every three months or more. 

Seizure medications for dogs may include:

  • Phenobarbital
  • Potassium bromide
  • Zonisamide
  • Levetiracetam

However, Patterson cautions that each dog seizure medication comes with its own set of side effects, and some medications may be more effective for individual dogs than others. 

Researchers are currently exploring the potential of specialized diets, implanted devices, and CBD oil that may help with dog seizures in the future. Your veterinarian may also be able to suggest specific lifestyle changes for your dog.

Not every dog who has a seizure is going to need a lot of long-term veterinary diagnostics and treatment and management,” Boudreau adds. “But we get worried when the seizures happen repeatedly and frequently.

Related Conditions 

Prolonged seizures in dogs can cause serious problems for your pet. Patterson says that a seizure lasting 15 to 30 minutes could cause brain damage and also affect major organs like the kidneys and lungs.

 

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