What are seizures exactly?

Seizures are a little glitch in the brain, a temporary involuntary disturbance of normal brain function that usually goes hand in hand with uncontrollable muscle activity. Basically, the brain glitches, and the muscles spasm and the dog has no control over its body or mind at that point in time. Seizures are also known as fits or convulsions and are the most commonly reported neurological conditions in dogs. But wait… what is Epilepsy then? Is it the same thing? Epilepsy is when a dog has repeated episodes of seizures with no other known cause. Epilepsy usually starts between the ages of 6 months and 6 years of age.

What are the types of seizures that we get?

The most common seizure we get is called the ‘grand mal’ seizure, which is the generalised “typical” seizure which takes control of the entire body. The effect of these generalised seizures are usually the loss of consciousness and leads to the dog convulsing anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes.

The second type of seizure we get is called a vocal or a partial seizure that only affects a part of the brain. The result of that is that only a part of the body is affected like a limb that is experiencing unusual movements.

The third type of seizure is called a psychomotor seizure which causes strange behaviour that lasts a couple of minutes. Examples of such behaviour is where a dog chases his tail or attacks an imaginary object.

It is of utmost importance that we understand what symptoms to look out for. There are 3 different phases of a seizure, namely Pre-seizure (time leading up to a seizure, usually 5-15 minutes), the actual seizure (convulsing, loss of consciousness and muscle spasms) and post- seizure (the recovery phase after the seizure). In other words, before, during and after the seizure.

Pre- seizure signs may include:
Dilated pupils, vomiting, staring into space, salivation, restlessness, circling, snapping at the air, strange vocalisations, clingy behaviour, whining

Seizure state signs may include:
Urination and defecation, loss of consciousness, unresponsiveness, excessive salivation, jerking and paddling of legs, chewing motions, stiffness of the legs, arched back and extended neck

Post- seizure signs may include:
Disorientation, fatigue, confusion, hunger, thirst, panting, falling and being off balance (These may last a few minutes up to 24 hours. Average time is roughly 30 min -1hour post seizure) 

The Big question… why do dogs get seizures?

There are truly many reasons why dogs get seizures. We broadly classify them into intracranial (inside the brain) causes and extra-cranial (outside of the brain) causes:

Intracranial: There are many reasons ranging from structural brain disorders, traumatic brain injuries, meningitis, brain tumours and strokes. An MRI is required to diagnose this, so we usual start with ruling out the common extra-cranial causes.

Extra cranial: We look at 5 different causes

  1. Blood glucose: When blood glucose drops too low it can cause seizures
  2. Toxins: There are many different toxins that can cause seizures, but overdose of insectides and pesticides are the front runners
  3. Electrolyte imbalances: Blood sodium and calcium imbalances
  4. Kidney disease
  5. Liver disease

Where do we start to look??

When trying to figure out the cause of seizures, your vet will start with asking a few questions and doing a complete clinical exam. We try and rule out any possibility that the dog could have ingested any toxins, although is sometimes easier said than done. The next step is to run a series of basic blood tests to rule out the other 4 extra cranial causes.

If this is all normal, epilepsy may become a suspicion depending on age, breed etc.

If epilepsy is unlikely, an MRI is usually the next step in ruling out brain abnormalities.

What to do when your dog has a seizure?

  1. Keep Calm: Always keep calm in the event of a seizure, if you remain calm he will respond to that. That being said, it can be absolutely terrifying seeing your beloved pet have a seizure. Do your best to keep calm, and follow the rest of the instructions below.
  2. Time your dog’s Seizures: Always try to time the duration of the seizures so that you can relay the information to your veterinarian. Most seizures last under 2 minutes. Between 2 and 5 minutes is a definite warning zone and your dog should be taken to a vet as soon as possible. If the seizures continue for more than 5 minutes, this becomes life threatening and immediate veterinary assistance must be acquired.
  3. Take you dog to a safe location: If he has a seizure close to a flight of stairs, carefully move him to an area where he cannot fall or hurt himself. Remember, dogs are often disorientated when they wake up from seizure episode. Ideally place him on his side with his head dropped slightly lower than his body to avoid choking on saliva.
  4. Sit near your dog: Sit near you dog, but be careful of petting him to the face region. Remember he can be biting uncontrollably and might accidently bite your hand without him wanting to. Rather pat his lower back where his head cannot reach as easily.
  5. Speak to him in a comforting tone: Speak in a low and comforting tone, this will help relax and calm him down
  6. Let him sleep and rest: After a seizure activity, they may be very tired. It is best to let them sleep and rest.
  7. Let them eat and drink: They may be very hungry and thirsty after a seizure activity, allow them to eat and drink once they are looking a bit more stable. It is not a good idea to force them to eat and drink, but if they are conscious and awake enough, they are allowed to eat and drink
  8. Final step: Call your local veterinarian and let him advise you on what is the next step going forward

NB: a single short epileptic seizure will not kill your dog. However if your dog is experiencing cluster seizures (more than 3 in a day) or the seizures are lasting longer than 2-5minutes, your pet needs veterinary assistance. We usually only start long term treatment if seizures are happening more than 1 x month. 

Recovery and management of seizures in dogs:

To manage seizures in certain patients is not always straightforward. Each case is different and it can take time for the medication to control your dog’s seizures and in some unfortunate situations, it may not be possible to control the seizures at all. It is important to monitor the dog for any dangerous side effects of thee medication, like liver and kidney damage. Your veterinarian will take all the above-mentioned information into account and discuss the dogs’ prognosis and help you make the right decision with regards to quality of life. Once your pet is on chronic long term seizure medication, we usually advise doing blood tests to check liver and kidney function as well as medication levels every 6 months to monitor closely and make sure they are on the right dose.

If you are concerned about possible seizure episodes, please phone us to chat to one of our vets and make an appointment to bring your pet in.