Epilepsy in Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

By Dr Joanna De Klerk

It can be scary to witness your dog having a seizure, especially if you’ve never seen a seizure before. There are several different types of seizures, and so it’s important to realise not all dogs will shake and fall over. Also, many people don’t know that epilepsy causes seizures, but not all seizures are a result of epilepsy, so if your pooch hasn’t been diagnosed as epileptic, make sure you take the seizures seriously until you know what the underlying cause is. 

In this article we will explore everything you need to know about epilepsy and how to care for your four-legged friend when they have a seizure.

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a genetic condition which causes rapid firing of all the nerves in the brain at the same time, resulting in a seizure. There is no trigger for epileptic seizures, unlike other forms of seizures which can be a result of toxins, tumours, a high temperature, low blood glucose or infections. 

Epilepsy is generally a condition of younger adult dogs, and first becomes apparent around the ages of two to six years old. There are exceptions, but generally the first seizure happens between these ages.

There are many causes of seizures, and if your furbaby hasn’t had a seizure before, your vet will probably do quite a few tests to check that there is no underlying cause. Unfortunately, there is not a test for epilepsy; it is simply a diagnosis made by exclusion of other causes.

Types of Seizures

Seizures can vary significantly in appearance from dog to dog. Seizures used to be classified as ‘petit mal’ and ‘grand mal’, but now, these terms are rarely used by veterinarians, and are rather called ‘partial’ and ‘full’ seizures. These terms describe how much of the brain is being affected by the hyperactive nerves firing all at once. 

A partial seizure, depending on the area of the brain affected, might not even cause a loss of consciousness. Usually the symptoms displayed are a loss of attention, twitching muscles, or a change in sight, such as spots in front of the eyes which may cause your pup to act like they are trying to catch a fly.

A full seizure, however, is what people classically know as a seizure. This usually causes your dog to drop to the ground, shake, bite, have stiff legs, and foam at the mouth. They may also defaecate or urinate from the muscle contractions and loss of control. Your pup, within this time, will probably not close their eyes, but they are not rousable or conscious of what they are doing.

Seizures generally last just a few minutes, but if they go on for over five minutes, your dog must be seen by a vet immediately. If your dog seizures for over 30 minutes, this will lead to permanent irreversible brain damage. Seizures can also come in clusters, which are defined as more than two seizures in 24 hours. Cluster seizures are extremely serious.

You may be able to tell that your dog is about to have a seizure, as their behaviour will change hours or even days before the seizure. This is called the ‘prodrome’ phase. The behaviour might also remain unusual for hours or days after the seizure as well, known as the ‘post-ictal’ phase.

Epilepsy doesn’t usually lead to one type of seizure. If your four-legged friend has been diagnosed with epilepsy, he might get full, partial or cluster seizures, or a mixture of all of them.

What to Do When Your Dog Has a Seizure

If your dog is having a seizure, the most important thing is to try not to panic. The first thing you must do is note the time, so you can tell your vet how long the seizure lasted for. Next, remove all objects in the vicinity of your furbaby so that they cannot harm themselves if they are convulsing. If you have another person in the room with you, ask them to video record the seizure whilst you phone your emergency vet services to tell them your dog is seizing and requires to be seen. The video will help your vet greatly in determining the cause if you don’t already know that epilepsy is the cause.

Be aware that if you touch your dog whilst he is seizing, there is a chance you may be bitten by accident. Therefore, only try to move your dog if their seizure is continuing for more than two minutes. Otherwise, allow the seizure to finish, then immediately take them to your veterinary clinic for a check over if the seizure was longer than usual, or your dog hasn’t yet been diagnosed as epileptic. 

After the event, write down in a diary all the details about the seizure, as it will help you track when your furbaby has seizures and how best to manage them.

How to Move a Seizing Dog

If your furry friend has been seizing, and it has been going on longer than usual, you need to urgently take him to the vet for medical attention. It can be tricky to move a dog that is having a seizure without putting yourself or your four-legged friend in harm’s way.

If you have another person to help, this will make it much easier. Place a towel next to your dog, and by grabbing his legs, roll or pull him onto the towel. The towel can then be used as a stretcher to move your dog to the car.

Gently place him in the car, taking care of the head end, and try to position him so that he isn’t a danger to himself or where he could become suffocated.

Remember to drive carefully to the vets. Even though you have an emergency situation and need to get there quickly, it is important that you don’t cause a road traffic accident.

Long-Term Treatment of Epilepsy

Epilepsy can be well controlled with daily medication to reduce the frequency of seizures that your pup experiences. It doesn’t often prevent epileptic seizures but might reduce the frequency from one or two a month, to one or two a year. This helps your furbaby to have a much better quality of life.

Seizure medication can have some side effects, and particularly takes a toll on the liver. Therefore, to keep your pup healthy, remember to take him for his bi-annual check-up and blood test to ensure he is getting the ideal dose. Also tell your vet if you notice any abnormal symptoms, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Change in appetite
  • Change in thirst
  • Drowsiness
  • Change in behaviour

Your vet might also prescribe rectal diazepam if your pooch has frequent or long seizures. This can be administered during a seizure to cut the seizure short.

Apart from the daily medications and regular check-ups though, your epileptic dog can live a completely normal and happy life on chronic medication.

Take Home Message

If you have a newly diagnosed epileptic dog, it is understandable if you’re feeling anxious, but the good news is that with the ongoing help of your veterinarian, your beloved pooch can live a happy and healthy life with epilepsy.