Dog Epilepsy

There are few things more terrifying for a dog owner than to see a beloved pet suddenly fall on her side, legs stretched straight and rigid, head twisting back, lips pulled back to expose her teeth. These are classic signs of a grand mal seizure, and they can make for an endless few minutes. An hour later, your dog may be romping through the yard while you’re still trying to settle your nerves.

Epilepsy is one of a variety of seizure disorders. It’s a neurological condition marked by an abnormal burst of electrical energy to the brain, which causes the body to malfunction in several ways, including the psychic (distortions of normal thought), physical, and sensory. It may involve a loss of consciousness, but not always. Epileptic attacks can recur anywhere from monthly to several times a day, and often you’ll be unable to recognize any triggering event or condition.

When a seizure has passed, so has the immediate danger–but there’s no question that it’s time to see the vet for a thorough examination. If a seizure lasts more than five minutes, call the vet or go to the emergency center at once.


Some 3 percent of dogs have idiopathic epilepsy, meaning there’s no known cause. These account for 80 percent of epileptic seizures.

Epilepsy is an inherited disorder in some breeds, including Beagles, Dachshunds, Keeshonden, German Shepherds, and Belgian Tervurens. If these dogs are afflicted, they’ll usually start showing symptoms between six months and five years of age.

Other causes of canine epilepsy can be wide-ranging, including:

  • Past trauma to the head
  • Exposure to toxic materials
  • Infections, such as distemper or encephalitis
  • Metabolic causes, such as hypoglycemia or liver failure
  • Brain tumor
  • Degenerative diseases

When it’s time to see a vet

Because much of the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy depends on the dog owner’s ability to provide a vet with details, it’s important to write down as much as you can about the episode as soon as it’s over. Here are the most common types of seizures; all of them warrant a trip to the vet.

  • Generalized seizures. The dog falls down and may lose consciousness. Her limbs extend rigidly, and breathing may stop for 10 to 30 seconds. Then she may begin paddling her limbs and making chewing motions. She may salivate, urinate, and/or defecate. However, it’s possible for the symptoms of a generalized seizure to seem mild enough that you notice very little change.
  • Partial seizures. These begin with one area of the body, such as a jerking movement in one limb, facial twitching, or turning the head or bending the body to one side. Such a seizure may or may not progress to a generalized type, so it’s important to note how it begins.
  • Complex partial seizures (also called a behavioral or psychomotor seizure). In humans, these are associated with distortions of normal thought processes, leading to fear and possibly accompanied by strange visions, smells, or sounds. These frightening seizures may be similar in dogs, who exhibit aggression, biting at imaginary flies, running and hiding or cowering, flank biting, diarrhea, vomiting, or unusual thirst or hunger.
  • Cluster seizures. As the name indicates, these can occur in bunches and appear as any of the above, with short periods of consciousness in between. Seizures of this type require immediate medical attention.
  • Status epilepticus. These appear to be single seizures that last half an hour or more. The main difference between these and cluster seizures is that there are no periods of consciousness between episodes. Status epilepticus is life-threatening and requires immediate attention.

Stages of a seizure

There are three stages to a seizure. It’s easiest to identify the three stages during a generalized seizure:

  • The aura phase signals the start of a seizure. The dog may show signs of nervousness, trembling, hysterical running, and apprehension.
  • The ictus phase is the actual seizure itself. It includes the classic symptoms of rigid muscle tone, as described above.
  • The postictus phase is marked by confusion and disorientation. The dog may be conscious but not yet functional.

What’s next

To diagnose epilepsy, your vet will begin with a complete physical and neurological exam and then will probably take a blood sample, a urinalysis, and other tests.

Epilepsy can’t be cured, nor can it be prevented in most cases when the cause is unknown (idiopathic). However, there are a number of new drugs available that can help control symptoms. Once diagnosed and treated, there’s a good chance your dog can go on to live a fairly normal, healthy life.

Phenobarbital is the drug most often prescribed for canine epilepsy. It can be given in liquid or pill form, typically twice a day. It’s very important to be vigilant with treatment and never to take a dog off a drug “cold turkey,” as this can trigger a bad seizure. Phenobarbital is available only with a prescription (and that’s just fine; this is a disease that’s best handled with your vet).

Some dogs, especially those with liver disease, are prescribed potassium bromide, a drug that’s been used on humans with epilepsy for more than 100 years. It’s hard to get, however, and may require a pharmacist to create the proper dosage.

Valium is another drug used to treat epilepsy when a dog doesn’t tolerate phenobarbital well, or it may be used together with other medications.