There are few things more heartbreaking than a dog owner witnessing their beloved furry companion have a seizure. It can leave you feeling helpless and terrified. What can you do? How can you comfort your pup during this time of distress? The good news is, while seizures are scary, they can be managed and even reduced. Furthermore, there are a number of things you can do as a pet parent to make sure that your epileptic dog stays safe while experiencing a seizure.
What is a Seizure
Studies show that up to 5% of all dogs suffer from seizures. In fact, seizures are one of the most common neurological conditions diagnosed in dogs. A seizure is a temporary, involuntary disturbance of normal cognitive brain function. They may also be referred to as fits or convulsions. Uncontrollable muscle actions typically accompany seizures. A dog who experiences seizures will often have them during times of changing brain activity (i.e. when they feel excited, during feeding, etc).
The medical definition of seizure is uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. This electrical activity may produce a physical convulsion, secondary physical signs, thought disturbances, or a combination of symptoms.
The scientific term for seizure is "ictus."
Canine Epilepsy Definition
Epilepsy is a term used to describe repeated episodes of seizures.
What Causes Seizures in Dogs
There are many causes of seizures in dogs; however, the most common cause is idiopathic epilepsy. Idiopathic epilepsy is an inherited condition, although experts aren't exactly sure what causes it to develop. Additional causes of seizures include:
- Liver disease
- Kidney failure
- Brain tumor
- Brain trauma
- Toxins (i.e. poisoning)
- Infectious diseases
- Low or high blood sugar
- Electrolyte problems
Breeds At Risk of Canine Seizures
Interestingly enough, there are a number of dog breeds that are at a higher risk of developing seizures and epilepsy.
These breeds include:
- Basset Hound
- Belgian Tervuren
- Cocker Spaniels
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Shetland Sheepdog
While these dogs are at a higher risk, any dog has the potential to have seizures.
Types of Seizures | Seizure Symptoms
There are many types of dog seizures. However, they are typically classified in one of three ways:
- Generalized seizures - which can be either mild or tonic-clonic (sometimes referred to as grand mal seizures).
- Focal or partial seizures
- Focal or partial seizures accompanied by secondary generalization
Specific symptoms will vary depending on the type of seizure that your dog is experiencing.
A generalized seizure involves the whole body. It results from both hemispheres of the brain misfiring. A generalized seizure can last from 30-90 seconds. Recovery can be immediate or take up to 24 hours.
Underneath the generalized seizure "umbrella," dogs can experience tonic, tonic-clonic (grand mal), clonic, atonic, myoclonic and absence seizures (petit mal seizures) with the most common being grand mal.
Generalized Seizure Symptoms
A dog experiencing a generalized seizure will often lose consciousness and fall. It is also common for their limbs to twitch and jerk.
It is also possible for your dog to stop breathing during a generalized seizure. Approximately 10-30 seconds after, your dog may chomp their jaw, involuntarily defecate or urinate, paddle their legs, whine, bark, and their pupils may dilate.
Grand Mal Seizure (AKA Tonic-Clonic Seizure)
One of the most common types of seizures found in dogs is referred to as a Grand Mal seizure. Grand mal seizures typically present warning signs up to a day before the seizure occurs.
These warning signs include:
- Mood changes
Tonic-clonic seizures generally last one minute and are typically associated with epilepsy, low levels of blood sugar and salt or drug toxicity.
Focal Seizure | Partial Seizure
Localization characterizes these seizures. Focal seizures occur when a small area of nerve cells misfire in one hemisphere of the brain. Depending upon the dog’s level of awareness when it occurs, the seizures are either referred to as simple or complex.
In the majority of cases, your dog will remain conscious during a focal or partial seizure. However, consciousness will be more impaired when a complex seizure occurs.
Focal Seizure | Partial Seizure Symptoms
Common symptoms of a focal or partial seizure include:
- Twitching in one side of the dog's face
- Jerking in one side of the dog's body
- Turning of the head to one side
- A curving of the dog's body to one side
- Moving only one limb
Many conditions cause partial seizures including:
- Trauma to the head
- Brain infections
- Congenital abnormalities
Furthermore, partial seizures are often misdiagnosed as generalized seizures. However, if your veterinarian is able to determine where the seizure began, it will help to differentiate the seizures.
What is Status Epilepticus?
We briefly mentioned that epilepsy is a condition that describes a repeated seizure episode.
Status epilepticus can often be confused with cluster seizures. While they are similar in that your dog may experience several seizures in a short timeframe, dogs with status epilepticus do not regain consciousness between episodes. Status epilepticus is a serious, life-threatening condition that requires veterinary intervention immediately.
What Happens During a Seizure
When seizures occur they typically happen in a series of phases.
The phase referred to as prodrome typically occurs days or hours before the actual seizure. In this phase, pet owners often see initial changes in their dog's behavior and mood.
Aura or Pre-ictal Phase
The aura or pre-ictal phase can last a few seconds or a few hours. In this phase, the dog will often become nervous, needy, or anxious and may seek out attention from their owner. You may also find your dog acting restless, whining, shaking, or salivating. The dog behaves in a way as if they know something is about to happen.
This phase can last between a few seconds to five minutes. In the ictus phase, your dog may pass out and experience involuntary muscle spasms and actions.
Additional symptoms associated with this phase are:
- Foaming at the mouth
Post Ictus/Ictal Phase
During the postictal phase, your dog will likely be disoriented and confused. The dog may pace back and forth or be unresponsive.
Additionally, temporary vision and/or hearing loss may occur.
Increased thirst or hunger, as well as excessive salivation, is also common in this phase. The post-ictus phase can last from a few minutes up to several days.
What To Do For An Epileptic Dog
Now, we're sure you're wondering what you can do to comfort an epileptic dog. As terrifying as seizures may look, they actually aren't painful for your dog. However, they can ultimately cause a great deal of confusion.
If your dog is having a seizure, it is essential to try to keep the external environment as calm and as quiet as possible. Bright lights and loud noises can make the seizure worse as well as cause further seizures to occur. Additionally, make sure that all other pets are kept out of the room. This goes hand in hand with keeping the noise and stress levels at an absolute minimum. Some dogs may become aggressive after the seizure, so this may also avoid fights.
It is important to protect your pet from injuring itself during or after a seizure. Make sure there are no potential hazards in the area. Also never place your hands near a dog’s mouth during the seizure, as you risk being bitten. Dogs are unconscious, so do not try to arouse or startle them out of a seizure.
Furthermore, it is important to record as much information about the seizure as possible. This information will help your vet determine the cause and proper way to treat future seizures. Immediate veterinary care should be sought if the seizure lasts more than three minutes, or if your pet has two or more seizures in a twenty-four period.
How to Prevent Dog Seizures
Preventing seizures will ultimately depend on what is causing them in the first place.
As we previously mentioned, poisoning can often result in your dog experiencing seizures. If you suspect that poisoning is at the root of the problem, be sure to remove any potential culprits from in or around your home.
- Lead-infused paint
- Golf balls
- Foil attached to bottle tops
- Plumbing or building materials
- Sugar-free gum
- Ethylene glycol
- Homemade playdough (salt dough)
- Sago palm
- Illegal drugs
- Medications (with potential to cause hypoglycemia)
- Dark chocolate
Additionally, the stress associated with loud noises such as thunderstorms and fireworks can also be at the root of isolated seizures.
The best way to prevent these types of seizures is to remain calm and keep your home environment as peaceful as possible. Experts suggest playing calming music and talking sweetly to your pup. Additionally, lightning has the tendency to sneak up and scare all of us, humans included. Pet parents can create a distraction from the lightning outside by turning on all of the lights inside.
Finally, it is imperative that pet owners get their dog’s blood values checked regularly to rule out any liver or kidney disease as well as low blood glucose levels. Your dog's diet is extremely important and ensuring that they get all of the proper nutrients they need can also help prevent seizures from occurring.
Seizure & Epilepsy Treatment
Seizure treatment typically begins if:
- The dog experiences more than one seizure a month
- The dog has clusters of seizures where one seizure is immediately followed by another one
- The dog experiences grand mal seizures that are either very severe or lengthy in duration
- The postictal disorientation phase is severe
- The dog has a history of brain trauma/injury or a brain lesion on advanced imaging
Conventional Anti-Seizure Medications
Once the anti-seizure medication is initiated, it must be given for the remainder of the dog's life. Studies show that if anticonvulsant medication is started and then discontinued, the dog's chance of developing more severe seizures in the future greatly increases.
The two drugs most commonly used to treat seizures in dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide (K-BroVet chewable tablets). Additional newer medications include zonisamide and levetiracetam extended-release treatment. These medications require a prescription from your veterinarian along with routine veterinary check-ups in order to monitor the efficacy of the drug.
The Dangers of Conventional Anti-Seizure Medications
At the end of the day, seizures and epilepsy are scary conditions. It only makes sense that dog owners would do just about anything and everything possible to relieve their pup of the scary condition. However, at what cost? While we are certainly not trying to take away the importance of conventional medication, we want our readers to be aware of the potential dangers.
For starters, while anti-seizure medications can treat some forms of epilepsy, they can also have lasting, at times irreversible, effects on the dog's vital organs including the liver and kidneys. This is why the routine monitoring of the organs is so important. Yes, your dog may suffer fewer seizures, but they could potentially face liver disease instead. Is it worth it?
Additionally, even when administered properly, conventional anti-seizure medications don't always work on all seizure disorders. Unfortunately, you read that correctly. Some pets may require a combination of several anti-seizure medications to better control their epilepsy. There are some cases of refractory epilepsy in which two or more drugs have failed in controlling the seizures.
Let's take a look at some of the most commonly prescribed anti-seizure drugs and their effects on the dog's body.
- Short-term effects: fatigue, nervousness, lethargy, a lack of coordination, increased appetite, increased drinking and urination.
- Long-term (less common) effects: anemia and liver damage, including scarring of the liver and consequent liver failure
- Short-term effects: irritability, vomiting, loss of coordination and instability in the hind end of the body, sedation, increased drinking and urination
- Long-term (less common) effects: bromide toxicity which leads to disease and failure of the vital organs
- Relatively safe and well-tolerated
- Short-term effects: sedation, gastrointestinal upset, anorexia, changes in behavior
- Short-term effects: loss of coordination, depressed appetite, diarrhea, vomiting
- Rare effects: liver disease, urinary stones, aggression
The long-term effects of these conventional medications are often irreversible. It is very important to monitor drug levels and liver values as recommended by your veterinarian, to hopefully catch any changes early enough to be able to reverse them.
What is even more troublesome about these drugs is that they can all cause a build-up of toxins in the body. A build-up of toxicity ultimately leads to more seizures. Additionally, as we previously mentioned, stopping the medication can also lead to more seizures. We highly encourage our readers to consult with a holistic veterinarian and neurologist to learn about all the different treatment options available and determine what is best for their individual pet.
Furthermore, there are other alternatives!
Natural Anti-Seizure Treatment
Fortunately, there is a natural anticonvulsant medication for dogs with seizures. We are lucky to be living in a time where holistic wellness is making great strides forward in the ways that we are able to treat our pets. Hopefully, with continued studies and research, conventional anti-seizure medication can be a treatment of the past.
A specific diet can make a world of difference for a dog suffering from seizures and epilepsy. Experts recommend ketogenic diets that are low in carbohydrates and high in fats. Studies have shown that these diets are highly beneficial for treating seizures. In fact, diet is incredibly essential in healing just about any ailment that your dog may face. A species-appropriate, raw food diet can also be extremely beneficial in treating a slew of conditions. We recommend consulting with a holistic vet in terms of what diet changes will best suit your dog's individual needs.
In 2017, Purina released a new veterinary therapeutic that uses medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) as the fat source, which can add to increased seizure control in conjunction with mediations. One can also contract a board-certified veterinary nutritionist to help formulate a home-cooked diet as another option.
Studies have also shown that Chinese medicine such as acupuncture has been effective in treating dogs with seizures. Acupuncture, like most great things, works best with consistency. Therefore, this may not be the best or a realistic treatment method for some dog owners. However, it is comforting to know that alternative treatment means do exist.
Dog Seizures: The Bottom Line
With all things considered, we know that you want what’s best for your pet. At Honest Paws, we are all dog owners and pet lovers. Therefore, we know how troubling it can be when your beloved four-legged friend faces any kind of ailment. Seizures, in particular, can be extremely heart wrenching for a dog owner to experience.
Luckily, we are all living in a forward-moving time in terms of holistic healing and wellness. We are incredibly grateful that all-natural alternatives are finally getting the recognition that they deserve.
The fact that we have the ability to have a choice and a say as to how we can heal our loved ones is something that we can all be excited about. From CBD hemp oil to acupuncture to specialized diets, there are ways to help our furry companions without the need to go straight to conventional medications. We are elated that holistic alternatives are making such a massive difference in so many human and animal lives. Here at Honest Paws, we are so happy to have a small part in delivering the positivity to our readers.
As always, consult with your holistic vet regarding the appropriate way to move forward for your individual pup.
Jennifer Dempsey, DVM
Dr. Jennifer Dempsey is a small animal veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Bachelor of Science from the University of Central Florida and her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida (Go Gators!)
She has resided in the Orlando area since graduation and has gained years of experience helping cats and dogs live happier and longer lives. As a general practitioner, she has found client education to be one of the most important aspects of day to day life in veterinary medicine.
Medical writing has helped her to connect with a larger audience and make sure that pet owners are fully aware of their loved one’s medical condition. She currently shares her home with two rescued mixed breed dogs named Primo and Morgan.