Seizures in dogs: symptoms, triggers and what to do when your dog starts having a seizure

Witnessing your dog have a seizure has to be one of the scariest things for a pet owner to go through. It can be traumatizing for you and your dog, so below are some guidelines on why your dog might be having a seizure and what to do if he has one.

What causes a dog to have a seizure?

Seizures are a type of neurological condition where there is a surge of electrical activity in the brain, disturbing its normal functioning, often resulting in uncontrollable muscle activity (convulsions).  They can be unpredictable and infrequent or can happen regularly, which is most often diagnosed as epilepsy. As with so many ailments in dogs, there could be a number of reasons why your dog could experience a seizure. Puppies and certain breeds are more susceptible, but older dogs are not immune, and environmental factors can also come into play. Here are some of the more common triggers for seizures in dogs:

Genetic

  • Hereditary

Illness

  • Brain tumour
  • Liver disease
  • Low or high blood sugar
  • Stroke

Environmental factors

  • Head injury
  • Poison
  • Toxic Foods
  • Stress

Symptoms and types of seizures in dogs

A seizure usually occurs when there is a change in brain activity, when waking or falling asleep or when excited for example, and typically spans three phases:

During the first phase, known as pre-ictal, the dog will appear dazed and confused. He might go and hide in a corner and start whining – almost as if he is sensing the seizure coming on.

The second phase is the seizure itself, where, depending on the type of seizure, the symptoms vary. If it’s a generalized, or grand mal, seizure, the dog will most commonly fall on its side unconscious and move his legs spastically, almost as if he is treading water. Often this will be accompanied by foaming at the mouth, defecating and urination. This can last for a few seconds to a few minutes. During a focal seizure, only part of the brain is affected, so the dog will make involuntary movements in only certain parts of the body, such as twitching on one side of the body.

There are other types of epilepsy which cause recurring seizures with varying symptoms; those caused from brain lesions, psychomotor seizures, and ones from unknown causes. It is important for your veterinarian to diagnose which type your dog has for the correct treatment.

During the third phase (post-ictal), he may appear confused, disoriented, unsteady on his feet and may be temporarily blind. He may also fall into a deep sleep.

What to do if your dog is having a seizure

Firstly, try not to panic. Easier said than done we know. There isn’t really anything you can do to stop the seizure, so the best is to make sure the dog can’t hurt himself, by moving any furniture or dangerous objects that might be nearby, or gently moving him out of harm’s way.

It’s a myth that dogs can swallow their tongues, so don’t try and put your fingers in his mouth. You will most likely get bitten of you do. Talk to him softly, reassuring him and if the seizure lasts more than a few minutes, open a door or turn on a fan, as he is at risk of overheating which can be very dangerous.

When should I go to the vet?

If it’s the first time he has had a seizure, then it’s best to go to the vet to get him checked out and to identify any possible triggers.

If the seizure lasts for more than five minutes (known as status epilepticus), or he suffers a number of seizures one after the other (cluster seizures), then this is considered life threatening and you should take your dog to the vet immediately.

Once there, he will be thoroughly examined, and you will be asked for a detailed history. Blood and urine tests will most likely be taken and possibly an electrocardiogram (ECG) will be performed. Depending on the diagnosis, medication will be prescribed. Always follow the vet’s treatment advice to the letter. Even if you don’t experience any seizures in a while, don’t stop the medication.

How to prevent seizures in dogs

Because a lot has to with the breed of dog and the fact that epilepsy is hereditary, it’s quite difficult to prevent seizures in dogs. What you can do though, is if your dog is susceptible to them (and you know the litter’s medical history), you can keep a keen eye out for any signs or even get your dog tested as a precautionary measure.

With regards to environmental issues, the obvious applies; watch out for any situations where poisoning, food toxicity and head trauma could occur. 

The sooner your pooch is diagnosed, the better the long-term management.

The above blog post focuses primarily on seizures in dogs, however cats can also have seizures, although it’s not as common. In terms of what to do if you cat experiences a seizure, all of the above tips apply. The only difference is that a cat will most likely suffer a seizure from a brain trauma or a health-related trigger, it’s unlikely to be genetics.  

If you have any questions or concerns with regards to your pets, it is advisable to consult a registered veterinarian.

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