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Canine Seizures: What Causes Epilepsy in Dogs?

by Geoff Works |

Canine epilepsy is a lifelong neurological condition that affects around 0.75 percent of dogs in the United States. While this condition can last for a dog’s lifetime, your pet can still live a good life with the right strategy.

In this article, you’ll learn more about the nature, causes, and symptoms of epilepsy in dogs. You will also find ways to treat and manage this condition effectively.

What is Epilepsy in Dogs?

Canine epilepsy is a long-term neurological disease characterized by sudden, recurring seizures. The seizure is triggered by an abnormal spike of electrical activity in your dog’s brain. When this happens, your pet may experience involuntary convulsions within a few seconds or minutes. It can start without any warning and stop on its own.

Seizures are considered epileptic when they occur more than once within 24 hours. The fits appear in irregular intervals, which means you may not know when it will strike. However, the symptoms of an epileptic fit often follow a similar clinical pattern.

Since this condition is chronic, it can last for the remaining years of your dog’s life. If it remains untreated, it can put their life and well-being at risk. Fortunately, with the right treatment plan, you can effectively manage their epilepsy. This plan is something that you have to discuss with your vet.

What Causes Epilepsy in Dogs?

Seizures in dogs can arise for a multitude of reasons. The amount and intensity of these triggers can also vary from one dog to another. Let’s uncover the causes of canine epilepsy.

Structural epilepsy

This kind of epilepsy in dogs occurs when there is visible damage or abnormalities in your dog’s brain. Your vet will run diagnostic tests such as MRI and CT scans to inspect the condition of the brain. Some of the conditions that lead to structural epilepsy include:

  • Congenital abnormalities (e.g., hydrocephalus)
  • Head trauma
  • Inflammatory diseases
  • Intracranial tumors
  • Vascular illnesses (e.g., stroke)

Idiopathic epilepsy

If no signs of brain damage appear in the scans and yet canine seizures still occur, then your vet will rule out the possibility of structural epilepsy. Instead, they may diagnose your dog with the second type of canine epilepsy: idiopathic epilepsy.

This condition applies to cases where the cause is unknown. Because of this, it is widely assumed that this epilepsy is inherited from the parent dogs. Meanwhile, others argue that a combination of genetic and environmental factors can induce this type of epilepsy.

Idiopathic epilepsy commonly affects young and middle-aged dogs. Moreover, some dog breeds are more susceptible to this condition. These include:

  • Beagles
  • Belgian Tervurens
  • German Shepherds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Irish Setters
  • Keeshonden
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Siberian Huskies
  • Springer Spaniels

Reactive seizures

The third type of epilepsy in dogs is what is called reactive seizures. This commonly occurs in response to a specific trigger. Canine seizures of this nature can stem from a temporary problem in your dog’s brain function. The most common stimuli for this type include metabolic problems and exposure to toxins.

What are the Symptoms of Epilepsy in Dogs?

Epileptic seizures manifest differently for every dog. Their experience will vary depending on which part of the brain and the body are affected. The symptoms can either be focal or generalized. In some cases, generalized seizures can shift to focal seizures over a certain amount of time. 

Let’s take a look at the two categories of canine epilepsy symptoms.

Focal seizures

In the case of focal seizures, the damage occurs within a single region of the brain. In turn, the symptoms manifest only on one side of the dog’s body. The bodily response will depend on the origin of the excessive electrical impulses and the function of the affected part.

The symptoms of focal seizures can manifest physically in the form of:

  • Facial twitching
  • Chewing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Muscle contractions in the extremity
  • Paddling movements
  • Rapid blinking
  • Salivation
  • Shaking
  • Vomiting

Aside from this, your dog may also exhibit changes in its behavior such as:

  • Attention-seeking behavior
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Restlessness

Generalized seizures

Meanwhile, generalized seizures typically arise when both sides of the brain are affected. Thus, the symptoms will show on both sides of your dog’s body. For this type, your dog may experience the following symptoms:

  • Involuntary muscle movements
  • Sporadic jerking
  • Stiffening muscles
  • Sudden changes in muscle tone
  • Blacking out/loss of consciousness
  • Excessive salivation
  • Sudden urination or defecation

What Should I Do in Case of an Epileptic Attack?

An unexpected seizure can be frightening to deal with, especially if it happens for the first time. With the proper tools and knowledge, you can better help your dog throughout their fit.

If your dog suddenly experiences a seizure, here are five things you can do:

  1. Keep your calm. Seizures are generally painless, so there’s no need to worry.
  2. Move objects and furniture away from your dog to keep them from hurting themselves.
  3. Don’t put anything in your dog’s mouth.
  4. Take note of the following details for your next vet trip:
    1. When did the seizure occur?
    2. Which body parts were affected?
    3. How long did the seizure last?
    4. What movements did your dog make during the attack?
  5. Immediately call your vet in case of a severe epileptic attack.

How Long and Often Do Epileptic Attacks Last?

The length and frequency of epileptic seizures can occur differently in each dog. Some dogs can have convulsions two or more times a day. Meanwhile, other dogs can have very long epileptic attacks.

In the first case, the dog is experiencing a cluster seizure. This happens when the seizures appear shortly but frequently recur within 24 hours. While this case is less severe, cluster seizures still require prompt care to stop them from repeating effectively.

On the other hand, the second case is what is called a status epilepticus. In this case, your dog can suffer from seizures that last longer than five minutes. Your dog can also experience two or more individual fits in succession. This case is more severe than a cluster seizure, as it can lead to permanent neurological damage or even demise when left untreated.

What are the Available Dog Epilepsy Treatment Options?

As mentioned earlier, canine epilepsy can last for the rest of your dog’s lifetime. Only in rare cases does it go away completely.

Fortunately, there is a way to treat and manage its symptoms through proper medication and management. Let’s explore these steps in detail.

Antiepileptic Drug (AED) Treatment

The treatment process begins with medication. Your vet will prescribe antiepileptic drugs to help inhibit the trigger points of the seizure. AED therapy is especially helpful for dogs who experience the following:

  • Multiple generalized seizures in a day
  • At least two seizures in six months
  • Severe symptoms after the epileptic attack.

The prescription will depend on these factors:

  • Frequency, length, and type of seizure
  • Your dog’s kidney and liver condition
  • Effectiveness and strength of the drug
  • Your dog’s tolerance and sensitivities
  • Possible side effects of the medication.

This requires a thorough discussion with your vet, so make sure to bring a log of your dog’s medical history during your vet appointment.

For long-term epilepsy treatment, your vet may prescribe first-generation antiepileptic drugs such as phenobarbital and potassium bromide. If your dog isn’t amenable to these drugs, your vet can recommend a second or third-generation AEDs instead. 

Epilepsy Management

After receiving your vet’s prescription, it’s time to keep a close eye on the drug’s effects on your dog’s seizures. This is done through regular trips to the vet and a few diagnostic tests.

Periodic check-ups are a must to monitor the progress of your pet’s epilepsy. During your appointment, your vet will ask questions about your dog’s health condition. They will also inquire if there are any side effects from the disease or the medication. 

Aside from this, your vet may also request a blood test to see if their prescribed drug is still effective. This process helps them gauge if the treatment should continue or change. 

How Can I Help My Dog with Epilepsy?

  • Follow your vet’s instructions on the correct time and dosage of the prescribed medicine.
  • Continue the treatment without stopping unless your vet says otherwise.
  • Take note of any changes you observe in your dog’s seizure symptoms, medicine prescription, and other relevant details.
  • Keep track of the pattern in your dog’s seizures to see if there are improvements.
  • Make sure to visit the vet regularly.

Provide the Best Care for Your Dog’s Epilepsy

While canine seizures are generally not painful, your furry friend will still need your help managing the attacks. Learning more about epilepsy ensures that you can effectively attend to your pet’s needs and help them live the best life even with the disease.

For more advice on your dog’s health, check out the Lick Sleeve blog.

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