What is a seizure or epilepsy ?
Seizures are one of the most frequently reported neurological conditions in dogs. The scientific term for seizure is “ictus”. A seizure may also be called a convulsion or fit and is a temporary involuntary disturbance of normal brain function that is usually accompanied by uncontrollable muscle activity.
Epilepsy is used to describe repeated episodes of seizures. With epilepsy, the seizures can be single or may occur in clusters, and they can be infrequent and unpredictable or may occur at regular intervals.
What causes seizures ?
There are many causes of seizures. Idiopathic epilepsy, the most common cause of seizures in the dog, is an inherited disorder, but its exact cause is unknown. Other causes include liver disease, kidney failure, brain tumors, brain trauma, or toxins.
Seizures often occur at times of changing brain activity, such as during excitement or feeding, or as the dog is falling asleep or waking up. Affected dogs can appear completely normal between seizures.
What happens during a typical seizure ?
Seizures consist of three components:
1) The pre-ictal phase, or aura, is a period of altered behavior in which the dog may hide, appear nervous, or seek out the owner. It may be restless, nervous, whining, shaking, or salivating. This may last a few seconds to a few hours. This period precedes the seizure activity, as if the dog senses that something is about to occur.
2) The ictal phase is the seizure itself and lasts from a few seconds to up to five minutes. During a seizure, the dog may lose consciousness or may just have a change in mental awareness (“absence” seizures or hallucinations such as snapping at invisible objects). If the dog experiences a grand mal, or full-blown seizure with loss of consciousness, all of the muscles of the body contract spastically and erratically. The dog usually falls over on its side and paddles its legs while seeming to be otherwise paralyzed. The head will often be drawn backward. Urination, defecation, and salivation may occur. If the seizure has not stopped within five minutes, the dog is said to be in status epilepticus or prolonged seizure. Status epilepticus is considered an immediate emergency and medical help should be sought.
3) During the post-ictal phase or the period immediately after the end of the seizure, there is confusion, disorientation, salivation, pacing, restlessness, or even temporary blindness. There is no direct correlation between the severity of the seizure and the duration of the post-ictal phase.
Is a seizure painful or dangerous to the dog ?
Despite the dramatic and violent appearance of a seizure, seizures are not painful, although the dog may feel confusion and perhaps panic. Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not swallow their tongues during a seizure. If you put your fingers or an object into its mouth, you will not help your pet and you run a high risk of being bitten very badly or of injuring your dog. The important thing is to keep the dog from falling or hurting itself by knocking objects onto itself. As long as it is on the floor or ground, there is little chance of harm occurring.
A single seizure is rarely dangerous to the dog. However, if the dog has multiple seizures within a short period of time (cluster seizures), or if a seizure continues for longer than a few minutes, the body temperature begins to rise. If hyperthermia or an elevated body temperature develops secondary to a seizure, another set of problems may have to be addressed.
How are seizures treated or prevented ?
Treatment is usually begun only after a pet has:
1) more than one seizure a month,
2) clusters of seizures where one seizure is immediately followed by another or
3) grand mal seizures that are severe or prolonged in duration.
The two most commonly used medications to treat seizures in dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide. Research into the use of other anticonvulsants is ongoing, and combination therapy is often used for dogs that are poorly responsive to standard treatments.
What to do If Your Dog has a Seizure
Besides the convulsions described earlier, other symptoms that are typical of seizures include dilated pupils and muscle twitches. As far as we know, seizures don’t cause pain to a dog.
Don’t move a dog who is having a seizure unless he’s in a dangerous location where he might hurt himself. If you do need to move him, gently drag him by his hind legs. Remember, he might urinate or defecate uncontrollably while in the seizure. If he has the seizure indoors, you might want to grab some newspapers or paper towels to put under him in case this happens. It’s all right to touch or comfort your dog, but avoid putting your hands near his mouth his jaws may convulse during a seizure and he might inadvertently bite your hand.
All dogs who suffer from seizures should see a vet. Emergency care shouldn’t be necessary unless a dog has a single seizure that lasts more than five minutes or if he has more than two seizures in a row. When you find your dog having a seizure, take note of the time and be prepared to call a local veterinary hospital.
If your dog has not yet been diagnosed with epilepsy, your vet will first check for signs of different possible causes of the seizure, such as head injury or ingestion of a toxin. The vet should also check for low blood sugar, rabies and distemper, which have all been known to cause seizures.
What Triggers Seizures in Dogs ?
Simply put, a trigger is the source of your dog’s seizure. It is the factor, inside or outside of the dog’s body, that causes a seizure to occur. The trigger can often be difficult to identify, but in order for something to qualify as a trigger, it has to have happened within 30 hours of your dog’s seizure. The only exception to this is vaccinations, which can trigger a seizure up to 45 days after administration.