FACTS ABOUT DOG SEIZURES
Seizures are a scary subject for dog lovers, but to see your dog having one and not know what’s going on is even scarier. Dog seizures can be caused by trauma, exposure to toxins, brain tumors, genetic abnormalities, issues with the dog’s blood or organs, or a number of other reasons. Other times, seizures may sometimes occur for unknown reasons – called idiopathic.
HOW DO YOU KNOW?
Seizures can last from a few seconds to several minutes, and can vary in appearance. Behaviors can range from mild changes in mental awareness, such as a dazed look, mild shaking, staring aimlessly, licking lips, to a complete loss of consciousness and body function. Whole-body seizures, called Grand Mal seizures, cause your dog’s entire body to convulse. Once the seizure(s) begin, the dog will fall on its side, become stiff, chomp its jaw, salivate profusely, urinate, defecate, vocalize, and/or paddle with all four limbs. These seizure activities generally last between 30 and 90 seconds. Afterwards, dogs may exhibit confusion and disorientation, aimless wandering, compulsive behavior, blindness, pacing, increased thirst and increased appetite. Recovery following the seizure may be immediate, or it can take up to 24 hours. It’s best to make an appointment with your veterinarian soon after your dog is recovered.
If the seizure has not stopped within five minutes, the dog is said to be in status epilepticus or prolonged seizure. This is a medical emergency and requires an immediate trip to the vet.
BUT WHAT IS IT?
Seizures are one of the most frequently reported neurological conditions in dogs. A seizure may also be called a convulsion or fit, and is a temporary involuntary disturbance of normal brain function that is usually accompanied by uncontrollable muscle activity. Despite the dramatic and violent appearance of a seizure, seizures are not painful, although the dog may feel confusion and perhaps panic.
If your dog has recurrent seizures, this is known as epilepsy. When canine epilepsy has a known cause (such as disease), it is called secondary epilepsy. However, some pets will have recurring epileptic seizures that are unexplained, and this is known as idiopathic epilepsy or primary epilepsy.
Although idiopathic epilepsy in dogs is not treatable, the symptoms can be managed through a combination of anti-seizure medication and lifestyle changes, and epileptic dogs can still enjoy a good quality of life.
WHAT TO DO?
Remain calm. Time your dog’s seizures. This can be difficult, but your dog’s health depends on your ability to focus. Most importantly, make sure you both stay safe. You need to be very careful both during and right after the seizure. Comfort your dog by stroking him or speaking to him, but be sure to keep your hands clear of his mouth as your dog is not aware during a seizure and may bite down hard when his muscles spasm. Don’t worry - they will not swallow their tongue.
Don’t move a dog if it is having a seizure, as you could hurt him or yourself. Only move a dog while it is having a seizure if he is in immediate danger.
Clear debris away from your dog to keep him safe and comfortable.
Dogs may urinate or defecate uncontrollably during a seizure, so you may want to put down newspaper or plastic sheeting if you can do so without disturbing your dog.
Stimulating your dog’s vagal nerve may help lessen the duration and severity of a seizure. If you can safely do this, gently push on your dog’s closed eyes for 10 to 60 seconds. This can be repeated every five minutes.
Many dogs will be hungry after a seizure, so make sure that there are food and water available. If the seizures are caused by low blood sugar, feeding your dog something sugary like honey can help to bring their glucose levels up quickly.
Monitor your dog’s health afterwards. He may be distressed or confused, so make sure you are there to comfort him. Start a journal or keep a note on your phone documenting your dog’s seizures, keeping track of the date, time, and length. This will help your veterinarian figure out if there is a pattern to your dog’s seizures.
GET TO THE VET
Dogs that have more than one seizure in a 24-hour period are experiencing “cluster” seizures. If it is a cluster seizure or if a seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, you MUST take your dog to a veterinarian right away for examination . If you can capture the seizure on video, that will be enormously helpful to the vet.
There are a number of different types of seizures that dogs can have, and these can be caused by many different things. Identifying the kind of seizure is important for successful treatment or management.
Environmental causes of canine seizures include eating something poisonous (such as caffeine, chocolate, toxic plants, cleaning products and more) or head injuries. Environmental causes are the easiest to avoid, and if you have a pet dog, you should always try to minimize risks in your home. Some dog breeds are more genetically prone to seizures than others; thankfully that list does not include Greyhounds. But it can still happen.
If your vet agrees that it was a seizure, they will conduct a physical exam and a thorough neurological exam, concentrating on possible exposures to poisonous or hallucinogenic substances or any history of head trauma. Baseline blood and urine tests and sometimes an electrocardiogram (ECG) should be done to rule out metabolic causes of seizures. Laboratory and biochemical tests may reveal the following:
- Low blood sugar, or low blood calcium
- Kidney and liver failure
- An infectious disease in the blood
- Viral or fungal diseases
- Systemic diseases
A heartworm test is performed if your dog is not taking heartworm preventative monthly.
If these tests are normal and there is no exposure to poison or recent trauma, further diagnostics may be recommended, depending on the severity and frequency of the seizures. Occasional seizures (less frequently than once a month) are not as worrisome, but they can become more frequent or more severe. In this instance, a spinal fluid analysis may be performed. Further diagnostics may include infectious disease testing, CT scan or MRI.
Treatment is usually begun only after a pet has:
1) two or more seizures a month,
2) clusters of seizures where one seizure is immediately followed by another, or
3) grand mal seizures that are severe or prolonged in duration.
The two most commonly used medications to treat seizures in dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide, but recently zonisamide (brand name Zonegran®) has become most popular, as it works well with minimal side effects. Research into the use of other anticonvulsants is ongoing, and newer anticonvulsants such as levetiracetam (brand name Keppra®) is becoming more mainstream. Combination therapy is often used for dogs that are poorly responsive to standard treatments. CBD is also being used more and more.
Once anticonvulsant medication is started, it must be given for life. There is evidence that, if anticonvulsant medication is started and then discontinued, the dog may have a greater risk of developing more severe seizures in the future. If anticonvulsant medication must be discontinued or changed for some reason, your veterinarian will give you specific instructions for doing this.
Natural Remedies for Dog Seizures—What Are They? Can they work?
Some dog owners swear by natural treatments for their epileptic dogs, though the scientific backing behind them is sometimes lacking. These natural remedies can include belladonna, aconite, cocculus, silica, Hyoscyamus, kali brom, bufo and cicuta virosa. Always check with your vet before starting new anticonvulsant medication.
Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine can be successfully used together with anti-seizure meds, or to reduce the dose of anticonvulsant medications. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are the mainstays of this approach, which require a trained specialist.
CAN SEIZURES BE PREVENTED?
Because idiopathic epilepsy is due to genetic abnormalities, there is little you can do to prevent it. Aside from familiarizing yourself with the breeds most commonly affected by epilepsy and having your pet tested, there are a couple precautions you can take. Avoid salty treats for dogs treated with potassium bromide, as it may lead to seizures.
If you don’t want to try a homeopathic treatment, there are still a number of methods you can try to improve your dog’s overall health, which could help to manage its seizures.
Improve your dog’s diet: try to avoid “human food” or overly processed dog food, and opt instead for more natural ingredients. Cooked chicken and rice are good for fussy eaters, or ask your vet to recommend healthier brands of dog food. Some owners even opt for raw meat and bones or a ketogenic diet that is low in carbohydrates.
Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets have a NeuroCare formulation for dogs that have seizures in spite of anticonvulsant medication. This unique diet uses medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) as a fat source. MCTs are known to block one of the receptors in the brain responsible for seizures. Studies have shown a significant reduction in seizure activity when epileptic dogs are fed this diet. Talk to your vet, but perhaps a dog with infrequent seizures could also benefit from adding MCTs to their diet.
Boost your dog’s immune system with vitamins and supplements—but check with your veterinarian beforehand. Vitamins C, E and B6, as well as magnesium, have all been linked to stronger immune systems.
Increase the amount of exercise and fresh air that your dog gets. It can boost their mood and fitness—and it might help yours too!
While seizures in dogs are frightening and difficult for pet and owner alike, it is important to remember that epileptic dogs can still enjoy a long and happy life.
This article is for information only. I am not a veterinarian, just a fellow pet lover, and that’s why I recommend partnering with your vet to manage your dog’s care for his best life.