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Seizures In Dogs: Causes, Signs & Treatment (Vet Answer)

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By Dr. Emma Chandley

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Dr. Emma Chandley

BVetMed PGCertSAS MRCVS (Veterinarian)

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Seizures are a very common neurological disorder that are often reported by dog owners. Many dog owners will be familiar with the clinical signs seen with seizure activity. A seizure occurs when the cerebral cortex of the brain malfunctions, causing a loss of control of functions across the body. There is an involuntary disturbance of the normal activity of the brain which is often seen with uncontrollable muscle activity.

Seizures in dogs can result in subtle or overt clinical signs. Dogs can experience one or two seizures their entire lifetime, or they can have frequent, repeated seizures. Witnessing your dog experience a seizure is a distressing experience for owners. It is important to know what to do in this situation, as understanding the science behind seizures and knowing how to respond will help the situation become less stressful for owners and their dogs.

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What Are Seizures in Dogs?

Seizures occur when unregulated, abnormal electrical activity occurs in the brain.1 It happens in the cortical grey matter, and it causes an interruption of normal brain function. Dogs experiencing a seizure will have altered awareness—their senses and how they perceive their immediate environment will be changed. Depending on which part or parts of the brain are affected, they will experience involuntary movements or whole-body convulsions.

Diagnosis of seizures can be a complex and lengthy process as there are so many causes and certain things need to be ruled out for a diagnosis. Treatment for seizures depends on the cause. Usually, they are effective but in some cases, there is no cure and medical management is required instead.

sick chihuahua dog lying on a rug
Photo Credit: Zozz_, Pixabay

What Are the Signs of Seizures in Dogs?

Clinical signs of seizures in dogs can vary depending on the location of the seizure in the brain and also the underlying cause of the seizure. Common clinical signs seen with seizure activity include:

  • Muscle tremors
  • Muscle twitching
  • Hypersalivation
  • Chomping of the mouth
  • Teeth grinding
  • Tongue chewing
  • Jerking movements
  • Stiffening of limbs
  • Paddling motion of limbs
  • Arching of neck
  • Collapse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of control of the bladder
  • Loss of control of bowels
  • Disorientation

Just before a seizure occurs, there are some signs owners often note. These include seeming confused, barking at things they wouldn’t normally react to, or appearing to bark at nothing. They may also stare off into space and not respond to their name being called. They may start chomping at mid-air near their head.

After a seizure, dogs often have a “recovery” period where they can be extremely hungry and thirsty, they may be unsteady on their feet, appear to not be able to see, and walk around in circles. It is important to stay with your dog and don’t leave them unaccompanied as they may hurt themselves.

What Are the Causes of Seizures in Dogs?

The causes of seizures can be split into two categories: intracranial and extracranial.

Intracranial causes affect the dog’s brain directly, either altering the structure or the function of the brain. Common intracranial causes include:

  • Injury to the brain or surrounding tissues
  • Infections caused by bacteria or fungi, parasites or rabies, and canine distemper virus
  • Epilepsy
  • Tumors
  • Cysts
  • Nutritional imbalances
  • Autoimmune diseases

Extracranial causes of seizures start elsewhere in the body but have an effect on the dog’s brain causing seizure activity. Common extracranial causes include:

  • Low blood sugar
  • Low blood calcium
  • Body temperature too high
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Ingestion of poisons such as chocolate or caffeine
  • Liver disorders
  • Kidney disorders
  • Electrolyte imbalances
Dog giving paw asking for chocolate and owner not giving it
Photo Credit: rfranca/ Getty Images

Diagnosis of Seizures in Dogs

After the seizure incident has occurred, and you have reported it to your vet, your vet will start by taking a thorough clinical history from you. This includes any recent head trauma or exposure to toxins or poisons. They will also examine your dog from nose to tail.

Routine blood tests and urinalysis will be run, and the results analyzed for any suspicious changes. These tests are important to assess the function of important organs such as the liver and kidneys, and to assess electrolyte levels and blood sugar levels. An electrocardiogram can be performed to assess the functioning of the heart.

The next stage is further imaging; CT and MRI can be useful in some cases to assess the structure of the brain. The cerebrospinal fluid can also be sampled to assess for any changes that might cause seizure activity. If your dog only has one or two seizures, your vet may not carry out intensive diagnostics and they may just be monitored.

How Do I Care for a Dog with Seizures?

Usually, treatment is required if dogs are experiencing repeated seizures that are having a detrimental effect on their day-to-day life. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the seizures. Metabolic disturbances can be corrected, and some tumors or cysts can be removed surgically. Infections can be treated with antibiotics, antifungals, or parasite medication. Some injuries can be treated with pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication.

There are a few different types of drugs that can be used to treat frequent recurrent seizures.

Anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) or anticonvulsants are readily available. They function by reducing the frequency and the severity of the seizures. Treatment options include:

  • Phenobarbital: This is a barbiturate drug that is used to prevent seizures. It works by stabilizing the brain cells and stopping excess unregulated impulses from firing. Dogs on phenobarbital require constant monitoring.
  • Potassium Bromide: This can be used on its own or alongside phenobarbital. It reduces seizure activity in the central nervous system. A loading dose is required as it takes a while to build up to the required concentration to be effective.
  • Levetiracetam: This is an anticonvulsant drug. It depresses the excitability of nerves in the brain. It can be used on its own, or alongside phenobarbital.
  • Gabapentin: This is another anticonvulsant drug. It is not usually used on its own, but usually in combination with some of the other drugs mentioned above.
  • Diazepam: This is a benzodiazepine that can be administered rectally at home by owners in an emergency. It is not used for long-term management as the duration of effect is too short.

It is important to remember that treatment of epilepsy is a commitment you make for the duration of your dog’s life. There is no cure for epilepsy, but it can be managed well. If seizures stop once your dog starts taking the medication, this does not mean you can stop the medication as it is likely that the seizures will return once the medication has been stopped.

dog takes the pill from the owner's hand with its paw
Photo Credit: Aleksandr Finch, Shutterstock

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What should I do if my dog has a seizure?

If you see your dog having a seizure, you should clear the area they are in to ensure they won’t be able to hurt themselves if they lose balance and fall over or crash into something. Talk gently and quietly to your dog to reassure them. Try not to touch them as they may bite you unintentionally. If your dog has a seizure that lasts over 5 minutes, there is a danger that they will overheat. If your dog’s seizure lasts for a prolonged amount of time or if they are having repeated seizures in a row, you need to take them to a vet as soon as possible.

What is the difference between epilepsy and seizures in dogs?

Epilepsy is the term used to describe a neurological disorder that occurs when a dog has recurring episodes of seizure activity. Dogs with epilepsy can experience single seizures or a group of cluster seizures. They can vary with frequency. The word “seizure” is used to describe an isolated incident of uncontrolled abnormal electrical activity in the brain.

What can be mistaken for a seizure in dogs?

There are a few other clinical signs that can be mistaken for seizure activity. This is partly due to the fact that many different things can cause seizures and the location of the seizure can cause different clinical signs. Fainting episodes, muscle spasms, tremors, vestibular syndrome, and narcolepsy can all cause similar clinical signs.

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

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Seizures are a common neurological disorder seen in dogs. There are many causes that can often make diagnosis challenging. Your vet will need to determine the underlying cause before deciding on a treatment plan. Some causes of seizures are curable, others need to be managed medically. If you think your dog has started having seizures, arrange for an appointment with your vet to get them checked out.

Featured Image Credit: ARVD73, Shutterstock

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