Your dog Fido is dozing at your feet when suddenly he begins shaking violently, his glazed eyes wildly darting back and forth and his paws scratching at the air. You think he must be dreaming about chasing a squirrel, so you gently try to nudge him awake. But his convulsions get even stronger. He begins twisting his head back and contorting his body.
Fido is having a seizure, which can occur in all dog breeds and mixed breeds. According to the K9 Web, .5 to 5.7 percent of dogs have ideopathic epilepsy, the most common canine seizure disorder. The breeds for which a genetic factor is either proved or highly suspected are the Belgian Tervueren, Beagle, Dachshund, German Shepherd Dog and Keeshond.
A high incidence of seizure disorders is also found in Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, Collies, Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, Labrador Retrievers, Miniature Schnauzers, Poodles, Saint Bernards, Siberian Huskies, and Wire-Haired Fox Terriers.
Thomas K. Graves, DVM, notes on the Canine Epilepsy Resource Center website that the terms “seizure,” “epilepsy,” “convulsion” and “fit” all apply to the same thing: a sudden, uncontrolled outburst of activity in the brain. The seizure may be limited to a small area, such as your dog’s face or a leg, or it may spread through his body, causing generalized convulsions. A seizure is not always easy to recognize, Dr. Graves writes, and no two look exactly alike.
According to vetinfo, these are the basic types of dog seizures:
- Canine seizure – You may not even notice your dog experiencing this mildest type of seizure.
- Moderate or Grand Mal seizure – Your dog falls down, kicks erratically, loses consciousness or displays other seizure symptoms.
- Cluster seizure – Your dog has several seizures in a 24-hour period.
The Dog Seizures Guide notes that a typical seizure has three stages: pre-ictal, ictal and post-ictal.
- Pre-ictal – During this first stage, your dog may become nervous or agitated, and look to you for help and reassurance. He may start to tremble, salivate and whine, and lose touch with his environment. He may appear to be blind and won’t respond to your voice or touch. Sometimes this stage only lasts for a second or two, or it can last for a few hours.
- Ictal – This phase is the actual onset of the seizure. Your dog’s shaking may become severe and his body may stiffen. He will probably fall on his side and his muscles will visibly contract in an uncontrollable spastic motion. He might clench his teeth or chomp his jaws, drool and seem to stop breathing. This stage can last from a few seconds to several minutes. If it lasts longer than five minutes, this stage is referred to as “status epilepticus” or a prolonged seizure.
- Post-ictal – Your dog starts recovering but continues to have neurological symptoms such as blindness, panting and disorientation. Some dogs sleep for a long period. This stage usually lasts for less than an hour, but in some cases can last for two days.
According to Graves, your dog is probably not having a true seizure if he is conscious, aware of his surroundings and responsive to your touch.
If your dog is otherwise healthy and has a single, isolated seizure, it isn’t necessary to rush him to your veterinarian, but you should make an appointment to have him examined as soon as possible. However, if your dog has several seizures in one day, or is a young puppy or lactating female, you should take her to your vet immediately.
What to Do If Your Dog Has a Seizure
According to the Dog Seizure Guide, do – or don’t do – the following if your dog appears to be having a seizure. (The Canine Epilepsy Guardian Angel website has additional advice from dog owners who have dealt with their dogs having seizures.)
- Do not try to restrain your dog. Veterinarians have confirmed that dogs do not typically feel pain during a seizure, so it isn’t necessary to try to stop it. Doing so may actually result in injury to you or your dog. The most important thing you can do is prevent your dog from falling and hurting himself. The use of a comfortable big crate is ideal for this purpose.
- Do not put your hand or any object in your dog’s mouth. You might worry that your dog is going to swallow his tongue, but putting your hand in his mouth will only make your dog more stressed, and he may involuntarily bite you.
- Clear the area around your dog – While your dog is having a seizure, move any objects that might cause him further injury. Block off any potentially dangerous areas, such as stairs. Also remove other pets from the area, because your dog may bite or attack them.
- Take notes – Although it would seem to be a low priority, do try to make a list of your dog’s symptoms. This may help your vet determine the cause of the seizures.
- Stay calm – Try not to panic, because your dog may become more stressed in return. Talk to your dog in a gentle, comforting tone of voice.
Why Did Your Dog Have a Seizure?
If your dog has a seizure, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has epilepsy. According to the Canine Epilepsy Resource Center, the following conditions can cause dogs to have seizures:
- A brain tumor or head injury
- Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
- Toxins in the environment (such as lead poisoning from old paint, batteries, etc., or ingestion of rat poison or insecticides)
- Hyper/hypo conditions (such as hypoglycemia or hyperkalemia)
- Liccencephay (a rare brain malformation)
The following diseases and conditions may cause your dog to have seizure-like behavior:
- A disease of the middle ear, the vestibular nerve or vestibular nucleus of the brain can show abnormal head position and loss of balance. The onset of symptoms can be quite sudden and confused with seizures.
- Cardiac or respiratory diseases may cause your dog to faint and then become extremely weak. Your dog might pant rapidly to compensate for poor oxygenation.
- “Reverse sneezing” can affect small dogs. It is a series of violent and noisy inspirations during which the dog’s chest and abdominal muscles spasmodically contract. The cause of reverse sneezing is unknown and there is no known treatment.
To determine why your dog is having seizures, your veterinarian will probably use the process of elimination to rule out any of these possibilities. Your dog will likely undergo blood work and urinalysis so your vet can determine if your dog has any infection or inflammation, or kidney, liver or other metabolic problems. Your vet may order additional tests such as an MRI or CT scan to rule out a brain tumor, a spinal tap and toxin tests.
Treatments for Seizures
The treatment for your dog’s seizures will depend on the cause of the seizures. For example, if the seizures are caused by distemper, this disease needs to be treated immediately in addition to anti-seizure medication. Or if the seizures are caused by a household chemical, the treatment might be removal of the chemical along with seizure suppression therapy.
If the cause of your dog’s seizures cannot be determined, your veterinarian may prescribe medications such as Phenobarbitol, Clorazepate, Felbamate and/or Levetiracetam to help prevent future seizures.
Other treatments are surgery, which is very expensive and usually only performed if your dog has a life-threatening medical condition, or “kindling,” an experimental procedure that applies frequent low-voltage electric stimulus to your dog’s brain.
Some of the natural treatments for seizures include giving your dog herbs such as skullcap to reduce the frequency of seizures. Daily doses of vitamins and supplements that are beneficial to your dog’s nervous system are also recommended.