Getting a handle on your pet’s epilepsy

Epilepsy is a disease characterized by an abnormality of electrical impulses in the brain. These impulses cause the dog’s muscles to seize and/or create a temporary loss of motor control in the dog’s body. Epilepsy is a common disorder in dogs and can occur in any breed.

Most epileptic dogs are between one and five years of age when first diagnosed, and behave normally between episodes. This form of the disorder is called idiopathic epilepsy and researchers have not been able to pinpoint its cause. In a dog older than six years of age, a brain tumor or some variant of heart, kidney, or liver disease is most likely what is causing the seizures.

Most people are not aware that their dog has epilepsy until they find them writhing in the middle of a seizure, although a seizure can also occur as a result of head trauma, another disease, poisoning, or an unknown cause. Sometimes recognizing a seizure is difficult because a minor seizure, known as a petite mal seizure, may cause only a slight loss of motor control. Conversely, a grand mal seizure is severe, causing a dog to fall to the ground with uncontrollable convulsions, generally losing bladder and bowel control. He will be unaware of his surroundings and appear to be abnormal for varying lengths of time after the seizure.

There are three phases to a seizure:

  • Aura: This is a change in behavior immediately prior to the seizure. Your dog may appear disoriented, apprehensive, or restless, whining and seeking out his owner.
  • Seizure: This is when the convulsions begin. A severe seizure causes the dog to lose consciousness and fall over, his legs rigid and outstretched, and displaying irregular breathing or sometimes unable to breathe. This usually lasts between ten to thirty seconds.
  • Post seizure: This is when the convulsions have stopped, but the dog is exhausted and/or confused. Some dogs return to normal in just minutes while others may take hours to recover.

If your dog is having a seizure, try to remain calm. Don’t try to pick him up or you may be bitten. Remember, he is unaware of you and of his surroundings.

Please note – if your dog’s seizure lasts longer than five minutes, he could be suffering from status epilepticus, a rapid succession of grand mal seizures that occurs without a rest period between episodes. This is a medical emergency! If you observe these symptoms, get your dog to the veterinarian immediately!

Post seizure protocol for you

Take your dog to the vet as soon as possible, once he seems to have recovered somewhat from his episode. Your dog needs a complete physical examination, so the veterinarian can evaluate his heart function and general body condition. He will also take a complete history in order to rule out trauma and toxic exposure. If everything appears normal on the physical exam, the veterinarian will do a blood test to rule out kidney or liver disease. If the blood work is also normal and the dog is under five years of age, idiopathic epilepsy is usually the diagnosis.

How to handle your dog mid-seizure

If your dog is in the midst of a seizure when you need to transport him to your veterinarian, lay a blanket by his side. Hold his paws and roll him onto the blanket, taking care to avoid his teeth. Enlist the aid of another person to grab two sides of the blanket while you grab the other two to carry him to your vehicle. Place him in the rear to prevent interference with your driving.

Methods of controlling seizures

There is no cure or prevention for epilepsy, but it can be largely controlled with proper medication. Dogs that only suffer mild, or occasional epileptic seizures may not require medication, but for dogs who suffer more frequent episodes, your veterinarian can prescribe an oral anticonvulsant medication to be administered at home. The treatment changes the pattern of epileptic episodes by reducing their frequency and severity, and may even stop them completely. Treatment is usually considered a success if the seizures are limited to one or two occurrences per month.

Side effects of the medication may include sedation and increased thirst, appetite, and urination. The medication must be administered consistently, since skipping a dose may trigger a seizure.

If your dog seldom has seizures, your veterinarian may suggest keeping a record of the episodes before prescribing medication. Include the following data in your record:

  • Date of occurrence
  • Time
  • Environmental factors
  • Length of seizure
  • Symptoms/severity of seizure
  • Length of time required for your dog to return to normal

This record will tell the veterinarian if the symptoms and/or frequency of the seizures become more severe over time and if medication is required. Some dogs that have been treated for epilepsy over a period of time can be weaned off medication and may not require any more. Do not make any changes to the medication without consulting your veterinarian.

Most cases of epilepsy in dogs can be controlled successfully. They may have a slightly shorter life expectancy than non-afflicted dogs, but with proper treatment and care, your dog can enjoy a normal, happy, healthy life.

Source: Adapted from the American Animal Hospital Association