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Vet’s Guide to Seizures in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Majid Tanveer, DVM

For any dog owner, watching their pup have a seizure can be an incredibly distressing experience. It can leave us feeling helpless and powerless, unable to do anything to help our dog.

Are you aware of the cause behind them? Do these seizures recur? What action should you undertake during this distressing situation?

Dog seizures can be caused by various conditions, from inherited diseases to metabolic disorders and infections. Symptoms include jerking movements, loss of consciousness, salivation, vocalization, and excessive drooling. 

Treatment depends on the underlying cause; if this isn’t known, anti-seizure medications may be prescribed to control the activity and reduce the risk of more seizures. 

As a veterinarian, I’ve seen many dogs with seizures and treated them accordingly. Most dogs respond well to treatment and make a complete recovery. 

In this article, we will explore dog seizures: what they are, their causes and treatments, as well as how to support your pup during a seizure episode.

What is a Seizure?

Seizures result from a malfunctioning cerebral cortex, which can lead to dogs losing control over their bodies. The intensity and severity of these episodes range greatly, ranging from mild twitches to violent convulsions.

For dogs specifically, seizures may happen once and never occur again, but they could also be recurring events that require medical attention.

Are Some Dog Breeds More Prone to Seizures?

Seizures can be a severe health concern for certain breeds of dogs. Breeds that are particularly vulnerable to seizures include:

Large Herding and Retriever Dogs

Larger herding breeds are more susceptible to seizures due to inherited neurodegenerative conditions. Examples include Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, and Labradors. These can be caused by the following:

  • Genetic mutations
  • Environmental factors

Herding Dogs with MDR1 Gene

These breeds are at greater risk of having seizures because they have the MDR1 gene mutation, such as:

  • Border Collies
  • German Shepherds
  • Australian Shepherds
  • Longhaired Whippets
  • Old English
  • Shetland Sheepdogs 

This gene affects how a dog’s body processes certain medications, which include those often prescribed to treat epilepsy. 

If a dog with this mutation is given such drugs, they can build up in the brain and spinal cord, leading to an overdose and potentially fatal convulsions.

Breeds with Short Flat Noses

Short-snouted breeds like Boston Terriers, Pugs, and English Bulldogs are more prone to seizures due to their smaller airways and inhibited airflow. This oxygen deprivation or carbon dioxide buildup can trigger these dogs’ episodes.

Bull Terriers may suffer from a form of inherited epilepsy, manifesting in behaviors like:

  • Tail chasing
  • Unprovoked aggression
  • Irrational fear

What Happens During a Typical Seizure?

When it comes to epilepsy, seizures can be sporadic or occur in succession. These episodes may happen irregularly and without warning or follow a regular pattern. Seizures are composed of three essential components:

Pre-Ictal Phase (Aura) 

The pre-ictal phase (aura) can manifest as a range of behaviors: 

  • Hiding
  • Restlessness 
  • Nervousness 
  • Whining 
  • Shaking
  • Salivating  

It could last seconds to hours – like the dog senses something coming. This period precedes seizure activity.

Ictal Phase

The ictal phase of a seizure can present itself in various forms and last anywhere from several seconds to multiple minutes. These may include minor mental changes, such as:

They may be more severe – resulting in a complete loss of consciousness with all the body’s muscles moving spasmodically during a grand mal episode.

Alternatively, the dog may become completely unconscious, and his muscles contract spastically and erratically as he falls onto his side. Defecation, Urination, and salivation are common. If the seizure persists for over five minutes, it is considered status epilepticus.

Post-Ictal Phase

Following a seizure, the post-ictal phase can last for hours or even days and bring about:

  • Confusion 
  • Restlessness
  • Temporary blindness
  • Disorientation 
  • Salivation 

It is important to note that there is no direct relationship between the intensity of a seizure and its associated postictal period.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs?

Seizures are a symptom rather than an illness. They’re often linked to epilepsy, yet other conditions can trigger them. This manifestation of abnormal movement in the brain happens for any number of reasons, some of the most typical beings:

Idiopathic Epilepsy

Idiopathic epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures in dogs, caused by faulty electrical activity in the brain due to genetic codes.

Neuron misfiring disrupts normal brain functions, resulting in physical and behavioral signs such as confusion, disorientation, or loss of consciousness. Although inherited, its exact cause remains unknown.

Extracranial Causes

Seizures not caused by the brain can still be responsible for dog epileptic episodes. Familiar external sources of seizure activity include:

  • High temperatures
  • Insufficient thyroid output
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Low calcium levels
  • Liver issues
  • Various toxins, such as chocolate or caffeine.

Intracranial Causes

Seizures caused by intracranial factors are diseases that trigger structural or functional modifications within a dog’s brain. The most frequent causes of this condition constitute:

  • Head injury
  • Tumors 
  • Autoimmune maladies
  • Infectious viruses such as Rabies and Canine Distemper Virus (CDV)  
  • Hereditary epilepsy
  • Nutritional imbalances

Age of Dog

Nursing puppies may experience difficulty regulating their blood sugar levels, potentially leading to seizures due to hypoglycemia. Seizures can also arise due to brain tumors more common in older dogs.

What are the Symptoms of Seizures in Dogs?

There is a broad range of seizures and their related indicators, some more distinctive than others.

Partial or Focal Seizures

Partial or focal seizures affect just a single portion of one side of the brain and can be tricky to identify. Their signs may include:

  • Widened pupils
  • Sudden problems with movement coordination
  • Inexplicable hallucinations that cause dogs to bark at thin air or repeatedly bite in mid-air
  • Raised hackles on their backs

These types of seizures are often mistaken for bizarre conduct by unsuspecting observers.

Generalized Seizures

Seizures that affect both hemispheres of the brain are known as generalized seizures. The telltale signs of such an episode include:

  • Muscular contractions
  • Jerks
  • Uncontrollable saliva production
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Fecal incontinence
  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • Collapse

These symptoms will be more prominent across the dog’s entire body than with other types of seizure activity. If left untreated, partial or focal seizures can deteriorate into generalized seizures.

Monitor your pup’s behavior and symptoms closely. Should he experience a seizure, note what was occurring right before it began. You can help ensure your dog remains healthy with proper care and attention.

Diagnosis of Seizures in Dogs

After your dog has a seizure, diagnoses will begin with an in-depth history of the situation and any potential exposure to toxic or hallucinogenic substances and head trauma. Additionally, experts may conduct the following:

  • Physical exams
  • Blood tests
  • Urine analyses
  • An electrocardiogram (ECG)

The outputs from these examinations should rule out issues concerning the liver, kidneys, heart electrolytes, and glucose levels.

Suppose tests appear normal, and your dog has not been exposed to poison or trauma. In that case, additional diagnostics may need to take place depending on the intensity and recurrence of seizures.

Occasional seizures (less than once a month) are generally less concerning; however, they can become more frequent or intense over time.

Depending on its availability at referral centers and teaching hospitals, a CT scan or MRI may be conducted to investigate the brain’s structure.

A cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) sampling can also be recommended to search for abnormalities that could impact diagnosis.

Treatment of Dog Seizures

If epilepsy is ruled out as the cause of your dog’s seizures, discovering and addressing any underlying issue should be a priority. For example, if too much cerebrospinal fluid accumulates in his brain, surgery may need to be performed.

The proper medication or combination of medications has to be determined based on the following:

  • Underlying cause
  • Patient features
  • Cost considerations
  • Follow-up needed

For recurrent seizures, certain anti-seizure medications can act as a temporary fix and help to relieve symptoms. These are usually prescribed for cases of idiopathic epilepsy and may include:

  • Gabapentin
  • Potassium Bromide
  • Phenobarbital
  • Levetiracetam

Often, anti-epileptic therapy is prescribed to aid in the management of seizures. However, it should be noted that this doesn’t guarantee the complete elimination of all episodes—the aim is to reduce both frequency and intensity while preventing clusters from occurring.

Seizure treatment cannot be effectively completed with over-the-counter medications. Due to potential toxicity and the inability of human anti-epileptic medications to reach adequate levels in dogs, it is not recommended that these drugs be used.

Sadly, no home remedies for seizures have been proven effective. Although some cases of seizure may eventually subside without medical intervention, it is essential to consult a physician afterward.

What Should You Do if Your Dog Has a Seizure?

When your pup has a seizure, it’s essential to remain calm and follow these valuable tips that will enable both you and your dog to stay safe and sound until the tremors pass:

  • Staying composed is critical. It may be challenging, but your dog’s health relies on your composure and clear-headedness.
  • Pay close attention to the clock! Recording when the seizure had a start time and how long it stayed is essential for providing your veterinarian with clear information about what happened.
  • Ensure that your dog is unconscious or not feeling any discomfort, even if he may appear or sound distressed.
  • Do not attempt to grab a dog’s tongue if he is having a seizure, as this could be dangerous and result in being bitten.
  • While some dogs may drool or foam at the mouth, this doesn’t always indicate that they have rabies.
  • To ensure your dog’s safety during a seizure, keep him away from unstable surfaces like stairs and cushion the head. Moreover, lovingly give him comfort until he becomes normal again.
  • While it may be distressing, some dogs will defecate or urinate during a seizure; this, however, has no impact on the severity of their condition.
  • Seizures that exceed 2 to 3 minutes can potentially lead to hyperthermia, a severe health condition in dogs. To help mitigate the effects,  cool your dog with vet towels or cold water around his groin area, head, neck, and paws.
  • Begin tracking and documenting your dog’s seizures in a journal or your phone’s notes app. Take note of when, how long, and what type they were so you can study any patterns that may emerge over time.
  • If your dog has multiple seizures within 24 hours, it is classified as “cluster” seizures – an occurrence that needs urgent veterinary attention.

Pet Care Tip: Watch this video to learn how to properly monitor a dog’s seizures. It will demonstrate how to check them safely so you don’t have to worry about getting injured.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Seizures Painful for Dogs?

Dogs cannot sense any pain during a seizure due to the vast electrochemical activity in the brain. Although they may vocalize with whines, meows, or barks, this is unrelated to feeling pain.

What Foods Trigger Seizures in Dogs?

Foods that can trigger seizures in dogs include caffeine, theobromine, dark chocolate, mushrooms, xylitol, and ethanol. Dark chocolate contains theobromine which is toxic to dogs.

Can a Dog Live a Good Life With Seizures?

Epilepsy can be scary, but it does not mean the end. Your dog can live joyfully, healthily, and wonderfully despite his diagnosis. Make every day count for your dog, and give him all the love he deserves.

At What Age Do Seizures Start in Dogs?

Epileptic seizures in dogs occur mainly within the 6-year window. In dogs, seizures typically appear between 6 months and eight years old. An underlying issue may cause seizures outside this age range.