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Canine Epilepsy

One of the most common neurological problems in dogs is seizure disorder. Seizures in your pet can be very disruptive and scary for the family. A seizure is characterized by uncontrolled violent shaking or convulsions that may last a few seconds or up to 5-10 minutes in severe cases. In some severe cases, your pet may have cluster seizures, characterized by multiple seizures episodes with short gaps between them.

Why do dogs have seizures? The most common reason for canine seizures is epilepsy. This is a disorder that has no known cause and is characterized by an electrical disturbance in the brain that induces the uncontrolled motor actions noted in the seizing patient. Thus canine epilepsy is idiopathic. This means that there is really no known cause of the problem. Apart from epilepsy, there are other problems which may cause seizures in dogs:

  • Infection
  • Metabolic disorders
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Toxicity
  • Cancer
  • Or a brain structural problem such as hydrocephalus.

What should I do if my dog has a seizure?
First of all, don't panic! The first time you see your dog have a grand mal seizure (the more violent version) it can be very frightening. Usually your dog's first seizure is over before you can even get the phone call placed to your veterinarian. It is important to comfort your pet and try to keep it from injuring itself during the seizure. An injury may occur if your pet falls off of furniture or bumps its head on a hard surface during the episode. Under no circumstance should you put your fingers in the mouth of a seizing animal.

How do dogs get epilepsy?
Canine epilepsy is genetic and idiopathic. That means that the tendency for epilepsy is passed from one generation to another and there is no known cause. Certain breeds are more prone to epilepsy than other breeds. Some of the breeds genetically predisposed to epilepsy are: poodles, golden retrievers, Saint Bernards, Labrador retrievers, collies, boxers, cocker spaniels and others.

Call your veterinarian.
It is important that your pet's doctor be aware that a seizure has occurred. Your pet should be examined after onset of seizures. A thorough physical examination and blood profile for pets that have had a seizure is recommended. This will help determine the whether there is a cause other than epilepsy by ruling out other known causes.

Keep a journal of your pet's seizures.
This is very important! We can give you specific advice regarding the treatment of your pet's condition based on the frequency of his/her seizures and the severity of the condition. Things to include in your journal:

  1. Date and time of the seizure
  2. Length of the seizure (use a second hand watch to time the event)
  3. Describe what occurred during the seizure i.e. drooling, urination or stool production; did the motion seem to only affect one side of the body or both sides.
  4. Length of time until your pet was back to normal

How is the diagnosis of epilepsy made?
Usually this diagnosis is made after other likely possibilities are eliminated. A thorough history, physical examination, and blood profile will help to rule out the other causes of seizures in your pet.

What treatments are available for seizures in dogs?
The treatment of choice will depend on your pet's individual situation. If your pet has only had one seizure, we may suggest careful home monitoring and keeping a journal of his seizure activity. If he begins to have seizures more than every 4-6 weeks, we may suggest an oral anticonvulsant medication to help control the disorder.

What are the oral medications currently used as anticonvulsants in dogs?
The usual first choice medication is Phenobarbital. It is given orally twice daily and is usually very effective and rapid at controlling seizures. Another medication that may be used is Potassium Bromide. This medication may be used in conjunction with Phenobarbital or by itself to help control your pet's epilepsy. There are specific advantages and disadvantages to both of these medications and we would make our choice of medication based on your dog's individual situation.

Will this be a life-long problem?
By far, most dogs with canine epilepsy will need to be on medication for the rest of their lives.

What else should I know about seizures in dogs?
The frequency, length and severity of the episodes may vary. Some pets may have seizures and you not know. These episodes may be as simple as your pet not paying attention or gazing into space. The grand mal seizure is characterized by the violent convulsing behavior. The postictal phase is the time following the conclusion of the episode as your pet begins to recover from the episode. The postictal phase may vary in length and your pet’s behavior. It is difficult to predict the length of the postictal period as some altered behavior may be difficult to perceive. Generally this phase is characterized by behavior similar to grogginess, sluggishness and diminished alertness. In some severe cases, dogs have been known to temporarily lose use of senses like hearing and sight. So, it is very important to monitor your pet during the postictal period as well.

What can I expect after my dog is being treated for epilepsy?
Most dogs do very well and we see a dramatic decrease in the frequency and severity of the seizures. However, anticonvulsant medication will not completely eliminate all seizures. Our goal is to decrease the seizures to about 1, or less, seizures per month. You should also expect to have periodic blood samples drawn to assess your pet's ability to absorb the medication and any possible liver side effects related to the oral medication.

When is my dog's seizure an emergency?
If your dog has a long seizure (more than 5 minutes in duration) or if your dog is having cluster seizures, he should be seen immediately by your veterinarian. Cluster seizures are seizures that stop and start again and again with short gaps in between.