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Epilepsy In Border Collies: Signs, Causes & Care (Vet Answer)

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By Dr. Meg Barnes

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Dr. Meg Barnes

BVSC MRCVS (Veterinary Surgeon)

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Epilepsy can be an incredibly frightening condition to witness in your dog. Seizures are often unexpected, difficult to prepare for, and as an owner, can induce a sense of helplessness when trying to help your pet. However, epilepsy is one of the most common chronic neurological disorders affecting dogs worldwide and is seen frequently in the veterinary office. While there is no cure, there are various treatments to help manage seizures in your dog.

Continue reading to find out more about epilepsy in Border Collies.

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What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is described as recurrent seizures that are a result of sudden episodes of abnormal electrical activity in the neuronal network of the brain.

Sometimes, the words “epilepsy” and “seizures” can be used interchangeably. However, it is important to note that they are not the same thing. “Epilepsy” is the condition in which a patient has two or more unprovoked seizures. “Seizures” are the event itself, an excessive surge of electrical activity in the brain. There are numerous causes of seizures as a single event, and a dog that suffers from a seizure may not have epilepsy.

Some specific breeds are more prone to epilepsy. The Border Collie is one of them, alongside the Beagle, Labrador Retriever, Shepherds, Cocker Spaniel, and Poodle. Most dogs with epilepsy will suffer from their first seizure between 1–5 years of age.

a border collie dog looking sick covered with blanket on couch
Image Credit: Lindsay Helms, Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of Epilepsy in Border Collies?

Epilepsy is described as a dog having two or more unprovoked seizures more than 24 hours apart. There is an extremely large range for the severity of the disease; some dogs may not suffer from a seizure very often, while others may have seizures multiple times a day. Furthermore, the character of the seizures can differ greatly, too, depending on whether they are “generalized” or “focal.”

Generalized seizures involve an outburst of electrical activity in both hemispheres of the brain. This means that they involve the whole body; collapse, loss of consciousness, paddling and convulsions, vocalizing, drooling, and sometimes urinating or defecating. When a dog is having a generalized seizure, they will not respond to their name or external stimuli, and they may have a period of time before and after the seizure where they are withdrawn, fatigued, irritable, and disorientated. In more extreme cases, just after a seizure occurs, they may suffer from transient blindness or aggression.

Focal seizures occur when there is abnormal electrical activity in just a small group of neurons rather than the entire brain. These seizures are more subtle. They may include jerking head movements, abnormal blinking or twitching of the face or cheek, changes in behavior, rhythmic jerks of a leg, dilated pupils, and drooling. Focal seizures can occur without an apparent change in consciousness. They can also progress to generalized seizures.

It is important to note that dogs are normally between individual seizure episodes. The intensity and severity of seizures can worsen over time in epileptic dogs, and seizures can become more frequent. No matter if your dog is a diagnosed epileptic currently being managed on medication or if it’s their first-ever seizure, you always need to pay attention to two things:

  • How long does the seizure last?
  • Are the seizures occurring one after the other in a short period of time?

If the seizure has lasted longer than 3–5 minutes, and the seizures are occurring one after the other in what we refer to as “cluster” seizures, then it is an emergency, and you need to take your dog to the veterinary hospital straight away.

What Are the Causes of Epilepsy in Border Collies?

Epilepsy in dogs is often what we refer to as “idiopathic,” which means we don’t know what the cause is. We are beginning to understand, however, that there is a genetic component to idiopathic epilepsy; it just is not yet formally classified.

Epilepsy can also be a result of structural issues to the brain that affect its function and can occur after inflammatory disease, head trauma or stroke, or an intracranial tumor.

According to an article published in 2022, it is understood that Border Collies have a high prevalence of idiopathic epilepsy. It is presumed that there is a genetic component in Border Collies, but we are still yet to identify the genetic mutations or variations in this breed that is responsible for the disease.

How Do I Care for a Dog With Epilepsy

If your dog has experienced their first seizure, then even if they are back to normal after the event, it is recommended you seek veterinary care to get your dog checked over. Your veterinarian will rule out other issues (such as toxicity and underlying illnesses) that could possibly result in a seizure, and if clinical examination and blood results come back normal, this will likely place you on seizure watch.

A veterinarian’s guide for starting anticonvulsant medication is prompted by the following:

  • When your dog has two or more seizures in a 6-month period
  • When seizures occur in clusters (three or more seizures in a 24-hour period)
  • If seizures last more than 5 minutes

Border Collies are amongst the few reported breeds that are unfortunately notorious for being difficult in controlling epilepsy. Therefore, your veterinarian may decide not to wait for the above criteria to start medication and recommend anticonvulsant therapy immediately.

There are four medications that are used to control seizures in dogs: phenobarbital, potassium bromide, levetiracetam, and zonisamide. They can be used individually or, if not controlled with a single drug, can be used in combination. It is important to keep a seizure diary and to report them to your veterinarian (including the time and frequency). It is normal for a dog on treatment to have an occasional “breakthrough” seizure, but if they become longer than 5 minutes, or occur in clusters, then they must be seen by your veterinarian immediately.

lilac border collie lying on grass
Image Credit: Susan McQuade, Shutterstock

How do I manage my dog while they are having a seizure?

When your dog is having a seizure, the primary thought should be to keep them (and you) safe. Stay calm and remove any furniture or obstructions from their immediate surroundings, if possible. Limit any external noise and try to provide a quiet, dark environment with as little stimulation as possible to help them recover. Time the seizure, and if it is heading towards 3 minutes, get your veterinarian on the phone, or if you have been dispensed it before, administer emergency seizure medication. It is important to give them some space after they finish seizing as they are often confused and disorientated and, in the postictal state, tend to be more aggressive. Allow them to rest after the seizure and to sleep as much as they want.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Is Epilepsy Diagnosed?

Epilepsy is diagnosed based on a diagnosis of exclusion. Diagnostics include:

  • A thorough medical history and physical exam
  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests
  • X-rays
  • Imaging (MRI or CT)
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) taps

Diagnostics are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Often the cost of diagnostics can be prohibitive, and many dogs are not referred for more specialist diagnostics with a neurologist (MRI, CT, and CSF taps). A diagnosis of epilepsy is often provisionally concluded based on age, breed, medical history, physical exam, general blood and urine tests, and response to medication.

What Is the Prognosis for a Dog With Epilepsy?

The prognosis can vary greatly depending on the severity of your dog’s seizures. It is reported that dogs that experience cluster seizures (multiple seizures within a 24-hour period) or experience seizures longer than 5 minutes overall have a poorer quality of life and prognostic indicators. Dogs with more severe epilepsy may have shorter survival times. However, many dogs that do well on anticonvulsant therapy can live an otherwise normal life. It is normal to have some breakthrough seizures, and medications may have to be revised and adjusted in response, but with appropriate vigilance, they can be managed well.

My Dog Hasn’t Had a Fit for a While. Can I Stop the Medication?

Epilepsy mostly requires lifelong treatment with anticonvulsant therapy. It certainly shouldn’t be stopped suddenly without veterinary advice as this can have harmful consequences. Phenobarbital, for example, cannot be stopped suddenly, as this can cause withdrawal seizures. In any case, dogs should be seizure free for at least a year before thinking about stopping the medication. If you have any concerns or questions regarding your dog’s medication, it is always advised to bring this up with your veterinarian.

border collie check by vet
Image Credit: Kamil Macniak, Shutterstock

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Whilst we wouldn’t wish any dog to suffer from epilepsy, and even though we still have a lot to learn about the finer details of the brain, we know enough about the condition to offer epileptic dogs a good quality of life and hopefully limit the number of seizures they experience. A diagnosis of epilepsy in your dog can be overwhelming to start with. But with appropriate treatment and management, our hope is always that they will live the healthiest and happiest life possible.

Featured Image Credit: MaCross Photography, Shutterstock

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