Why Do Dogs Get Seizures?

Recognized as one of the most common neurological conditions in canines, a seizure can be an alarming experience for both dogs and pet owners, especially if it’s the first time you are witnessing it happen.

One of the best things you can do as a pet parent is educating yourself – recognizing the causes and symptoms is the first step in knowing how to treat your beloved fur-baby. This article explores the nature of seizures, what a dog seizure looks like, and the actions you can take to protect the well-being of your four-legged friend.

What Is a Seizure?                         

A temporary yet involuntary disturbance of normal brain activity, a seizure (scientifically known as an ‘ictus’) may also be referred to as a fit or convulsion, and is typically accompanied by uncontrollable muscle spasms and other physical activity.

If your dog has frequent seizure episodes, he may have epilepsy, a term that refers to repeated reoccurrences of the condition. In the case of epilepsy, the seizure may be singular in nature or may take place in clusters. Their occurrences may be infrequent and erratic, but may also occur at predictable intervals. Therefore, if you are an owner of an epileptic dog, it is of utmost importance to pay close attention to your pet’s signs and symptoms to care for his disorder properly.

Why Does My Dog Have Seizures? Recognizing The Possible Causes

There are many reasons why dogs have seizures, but the most common cause is known as idiopathic epilepsy, an inherited disorder; however, the exact origin is unknown. Several other major causes for seizures in dogs include:

  • Liver disease
  • Renal (kidney) failure
  • High or low blood sugar
  • Anemia
  • Brain cancer
  • Brain trauma/head injuries
  • Brain tumors
  • Electrolyte problems
  • Encephalitis
  • Stroke
  • Toxins (such as eating a poisonous substance)

One of the most notable characteristics of seizures is that they usually take place during times of changing brain activity, including mealtime, waking up or falling asleep, or even moments of excitement or overstimulation. However, dogs affected by the condition may appear perfectly normal between seizure episodes.

Symptoms of Seizures in Dogs

The appearance and symptoms of seizures can vary somewhat between dogs, and may last from less than a single minute to several minutes. Due to the abnormal brain activity and consequent bursts of uncontrollable electrical activity that lead to seizures, it results in a temporary change in your dog’s appearance and behavior.

Some of the primary symptoms of dog seizures include:

  • Jerking or twitching motions
  • Stiffening up of the body
  • Uncontrollable shaking/trembling
  • Collapsing or falling down
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Drooling or foaming at the mouth
  • Chomping/tongue chewing
  • Falling to one side and making paddling motions with legs/paws
  • Incontinence during episodes (bowel/urine)

Before an epileptic seizure, your dog may show signs of confusion, exhibit a fixed gaze or seem as though he’s staring off into space, or seem unsteady. After an episode, he may appear disoriented, uncertain of his footing, show signs of heavy drooling or bleeding in the mouth if he happened to bite his tongue, or even experience temporary blindness. Other post-seizure behaviors include walking in circles or bumping into things, as well as a tendency to hide afterwards.

According to experts, there are three distinctive phases of seizures in dogs:

The pre-ictal phase or aura: This phase is recognized by a state of altered behavior whereas the dog may display signs of nervousness; he may also seek out his owner or hide. Other behavioral/physical characteristics include restlessness, whining, heavy panting, salivating, and shaking excessively; such symptoms can last from seconds to a few hours prior to the actual seizure.

As mentioned earlier, if you know your dog is prone to seizures, being acutely aware of your pet’s body language is instrumental – paying close attention to his cues can help you prepare for his episode and make him as comfortable as possible during and after while monitoring the severity of his seizure.

The ictal phase: This term refers to the actual seizure, which may last from just a few seconds to five minutes in duration. Your dog may lose consciousness during his seizure or may show signs of hallucinating (also known as “absence” seizures), indicating an altered mental state. For example, he may snap at invisible objects or display other types of aggressive or uncharacteristic behavior.

In the event that your dog has a grand mal seizure (i.e., a full-blown seizure accompanied by loss of consciousness), his entire body will experience muscle spasms and contractions. Typically, a dog will fall over to one side and ‘paddle’ with his legs as though he’s swimming, while the rest of his body appears to be paralyzed with his head drawn back. If the seizure has not completely ceased within five minutes, the condition is known as status epilepticus (prolonged seizure) and is considered an emergency situation requiring immediate medical attention at your dog’s veterinarian office.

The post-ictal phase: This refers to the phase immediately following your dog’s seizure, and is marked by heavy salivating, disoriented behavior, restlessness or pacing, and sometimes temporary blindness in severe cases. Although this period may last a short while or continue for several hours, it should be noted that the severity of your dog’s seizure is not directly correlated to the post-ictal phase.

Types of Dog Seizures

There are several types of seizures found in canines, most commonly the grand mal or generalized seizure; these usually last from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. As discussed earlier, your dog may lose consciousness and experience convulsions as a result of abnormal electrical activity taking place throughout his brain.

In the case of a focal seizure, abnormal electrical activity occurs in only a part of the brain, which often results in unusual physical movements, such as a spasm of one limb. Although they may only last a few seconds, focal seizures can become generalized (grand mal) seizures.

Another type of seizure is recognized by odd or erratic behavior that usually last a span of several minutes, known as a psychomotor seizure. For example, you may notice your dog chasing his tail out of the blue or attacking an imaginary object. In this case, it can be a bit more difficult to differentiate psychomotor seizures from unusual behavior, but dogs who suffer from this condition will always do the same thing each time he has an episode.

Seizures are considered idiopathic when the cause of the seizure is unknown. Typically occurring in dogs between 6 months and 6 years old, this specific type of seizure is breed-specific, most commonly found in Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, Beagles, Belgian Tervurens, Australian Shepherds, and German Shepherds.

FAQs: A Helpful Guide for Canine Seizures

Is my dog in pain when he has a seizure?

Although witnessing a seizure in your pooch is often a scary and emotional experience, a seizure isn’t painful – your dog may feel panicky and confused, but in most cases a single seizure isn’t always an emergency situation and doesn’t pose direct danger to your dog. In some cases, owners may be tempted to prevent their dogs from swallowing their tongues during an episode (this is actually a myth; they can’t swallow their tongues).

However, the most important thing you can do is prevent him from falling or bumping into things. Keep him safe and comfortable during episodes to avoid accidental injury; that is where the real pain can occur. It should be noted that if your dog experiences multiple (cluster) seizures during one episode, or if the seizure lasts for more than several minutes, it’s imperative to seek immediate veterinary care.

His body temperature may rise or drop to dangerous levels, and in this case, secondary health issues will need to be addressed at it can result in a life-threatening situation.

What should I do if my dog’s having a seizure?

The best thing you can do if your dog is having a seizure is to try and remain as calm as possible –  keeping a clear head can help you to protect your dog from getting hurt (such as accidentally bumping into a piece of furniture, falling down stairs, etc.). As reviewed earlier, be sure to keep your hands away from your dog’s head and mouth, as he may accidentally bite or snap during an episode. Never put anything in his mouth; contrary to popular belief, dogs cannot swallow their own tongues.

Other simple things you can do to keep your pup comfortable include speaking softly and reassuringly to him, and if you don’t feel you are in danger of being bitten, you can touch him gently to soothe him. If his seizure lasts for more than several minutes, turn a fan on him if possible and apply cold water to his paws to lower his core body temperature to avoid overheating.

Call your vet as soon as the seizure ends. If your dog’s seizure episodes last more than five minutes, it is necessary to bring him to the veterinarian’s office as soon as possible, as it can result in brain damage or other serious consequences – your vet may need to administer medications to stop the seizure. 

What can I expect when I take my dog to the veterinarian’s office after a seizure?

If you believe your dog is suffering from epilepsy or a specific type of seizure, you’ll want to bring him to your vet as soon as possible to determine the cause and treatment. First, your veterinarian will perform a complete examination, including lab work that may include blood and urine samples to search for the root of your dog’s condition. Once the lab results are in, your vet may wish to run advanced diagnostic procedures, including an ECG (electrocardiogram) to assess the health of your pooch’s heart.

He may also run an MRI, CT, or CAT scan to diagnose tumors or other lesions in the spinal cord or brain. Additionally, the doctor may perform a sampling and analysis of CSF (cerebrospinal fluid); conducting a spinal tap can aid in identifying certain types of inflammation and neurological diseases. Advanced blood work may also be run, particularly if your dog has been exposed to poisons/toxins and suspected as the cause for seizures.

Once your dog’s physician has made a definitive diagnosis, he or she may prescribe medication to control his seizures – in this case, it’s extremely important to follow the instructions and be sure to ask any questions regarding dosages or any other concerns you may have. Finally, you may wish to discuss the benefits of natural supplemental therapies to enhance your dog’s health and lessen his epileptic suffering.

Looking Ahead: Treatment & Prevention

Although there is nothing pet owners can do to completely avoid or prevent seizures, with a proper diagnosis and a regiment of medication and lifestyle changes, your dog’s quality of life can be managed. Once your vet has carefully examined your dog and determined the cause and type of seizure condition, he will prescribe a course of treatment. Such treatment will only begin after your dog has:

  • Experienced more than one seizure per month,
  • Endured groupings (clusters) of seizures where one episode is immediately followed by another or,
  • Your dog suffers from grand mal seizures that are very prolonged/severe

In any case, no matter what type of seizure condition your pooch may have, it’s essential to monitor his health closely – be sure to have him examined regularly at your vet’s office, particularly if he suffers from a primary disorder that requires lifelong treatment.

Because there are other medical conditions that show symptoms similar to those found in seizures, it’s crucial for your vet to conduct a thorough check-up and routine lab work if he displays chronic signs – it may be indicative of other disease or illness. With the proper care, diet, and veterinary guidance, you can help your dog cope with this condition and ensure his quality of life for years to come.

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