Seizures in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Seizures are neurological events ranging from mild to life threatening. While alarming to witness, it is vital that owners stay calm during a seizure and contact their veterinarian or local veterinary emergency hospital immediately.

In This Article

What are seizures in dogs?

Seizures in dogs are temporary involuntary disturbances of normal brain functions that are typically coupled with uncontrollable muscle activity. Seizures, also known as fits or convulsions, are the most commonly reported neurological conditions in dogs.

What is epilepsy in dogs?

Epilepsy in dogs is when a dog has repeated episodes of seizures. These seizures can be a singular event or come in groups or clusters. The frequency of seizures in dogs with epilepsy can be unpredictable and infrequent or they can occur at regular intervals.

Types of seizures in dogs

The most common type of seizure in dogs is the generalized seizure, also known as a grand mal seizure, which affects the entire body. A dog affected by a general seizure may lose consciousness and convulse anywhere from a couple of seconds to a few minutes.

A focal seizure, or partial seizure, affects only part of the brain. This results in only one limb or half of the dog’s body having unusual movements. It is possible for a focal seizure to last for a couple of seconds and then transition into a generalized seizure.

Another type of seizure is the psychomotor seizure, which causes strange behavior that lasts a couple of minutes. This can range from your dog chasing their tail to attacking an imaginary object. The main difference between a psychomotor seizure and just odd behavior is that a psychomotor seizure results in the same behavior every time.

Lastly, dogs may experience a type of seizure known as idiopathic epilepsy. This is when the cause of a dog’s seizures is unknown. This typically happens to dogs between the ages of six months to six years. Although any breed of dog can have a seizure, there are a few breeds that are susceptible to idiopathic epilepsy. These breeds include:

  • Australian Shepherds

  • Beagles

  • Belgian Tervurens

  • Border Collies

  • Collies

  • German Shepherds

  • Labrador Retrievers 

Regardless of the type, seizures usually cause alarm for dogs and owners alike. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options will help you better understand and manage your dog’s condition.

Signs & symptoms of seizures in dogs

The signs and symptoms of seizures in dogs may vary depending the type of seizure, but most seizures tend to cause dogs distress. The symptoms of seizures in dogs are divided into three states: pre-seizure, seizure, and post-seizure.

Pre-Seizure State Signs May Include:

  • Staring into space

  • Restlessness

  • Clingy behavior

  • Snapping at the air (sometimes referred to as “biting at flies”)

  • Circling

  • Odd vocalizations

  • Salivation

  • Vomiting

  • Dilated Pupils

Seizure State Signs May Include:

  • Unconsciousness

  • Unresponsiveness

  • Jerking or paddling of limbs

  • Rigidity of legs

  • Arched back head

  • Abnormal breathing pattern

  • Chewing motions

  • Excessive salivation

  • Urination and defecation

Post-Seizure Signs May Include:

  • Disorientation

  • Confusion

  • Weakness

  • Ataxia (staggering or uncoordinated gait)

  • Panting

  • Hyperactivity

  • Thirst

  • Hunger

  • Fatigue

Seizures can last from a few seconds to several minutes. You may not notice the pre-seizure state symptoms the first few times your dog has one. However, if the seizures recur, try to keep track of any changes in behavior immediately before and after the seizures. This will help your doctor with the diagnosis.

The seizure itself can affect the entire body or just one area of the body depending on the type. In a grand mal seizure, dogs typically present with full body rigidity. The legs will appear stiff, and the heads may arch back. These dogs may also jerk or paddle their limbs as if they are running, as well as perform chewing motions, salivate, and in some cases urinate or defecate. Despite this activity, dogs are often unconscious and unresponsive during seizures.

In a partial seizure, the symptoms may be limited to a single limb or part of body. The head might turn to one side, for example, or a single leg could jerk and twitch. In some cases, the only sign may be repetitive blinking of one or both of your dog’s eyes or staring vacantly into space. Chewing motions, salivation, disorientation, unresponsiveness, aggression, barking, and excessive biting or licking at the air (fly biting) can also occur.

After the seizure ends, dogs often experience post-seizure signs. These can differ but can include restlessness, weakness, disorientation, panting, hyperactivity, fatigue, and even unprovoked aggression. These signs can last anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours.

What causes seizures in dogs?

Dogs develop seizures for many reasons, ranging from idiopathic epilepsy to toxins stemming from structural brain disorders, and metabolic conditions.

Structural brain disorders, like tumors, congenital birth defects, traumatic brain injuries, infections, inflammatory diseases, degenerative brain diseases, and vascular strokes can all cause seizures.

Metabolic disorders can also cause seizures, including severe liver and kidney disease, blood sodium or calcium imbalances, hormonal disorders, low blood sugar, and high blood pressure. Additionally, several toxins can also cause seizures in dogs.

The cause of seizures in dogs is not always known. If veterinarians have ruled out all other potential causes of seizures, dogs are diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, which means that the underlying cause cannot be identified.

Diagnosing seizures in dogs

Diagnosing seizures in dogs requires a veterinarian’s confirmation that a dog has had a seizure, followed by a thorough analysis to try to determine the underlying cause of it. Seizures are initially diagnosed based upon the owner’s description and an exam. If possible, ask a friend or family member to safely video your dog’s seizure activity, as this will help your veterinarian accurately diagnose your dog’s condition.

Your veterinarian will then give your dog a thorough physical and neurological examination. They will look for any abnormalities that may point them in the direction of the underlying cause. In many cases, the veterinarian will recommend routine laboratory tests and diagnostic imaging, like chest radiographs (to look for evidence of cancer). Based upon these results, your veterinarian may also suggest additional tests, such as MRIs, blood tests to search for signs of toxins or metabolic disorders, and collection of cerebrospinal fluid to diagnose potential brain inflammation or infections. These more advanced diagnostic tests are typically performed by a board-certified veterinary neurologist or internist.

Some diseases and conditions, like vestibular disorders and REM sleep disorder, can be similar to symptoms of seizures. Your veterinarian may also suggest testing for these conditions, as an accurate diagnosis is the best way of getting your dog the right treatment.

Diagnosing seizures in dogs can take time. After determining that a seizure has occurred, veterinarians then search for the underlying cause of the seizure or seizures. This can require multiple tests, and in some cases, an underlying cause cannot be determined at all.

Are seizures painful for dogs?

No, seizures are not painful for dogs. Although many seizures look violent, the dog is not being harmed. The greatest danger is if they fall over or knock something over onto themselves while seizing. Dogs may become panicked or confused after a seizure because they can't fully understand what just happened to them.

Are seizures dangerous for dogs?

Although a single seizure is not often dangerous, having cluster seizures, multiple seizures in a short period of time, or a seizure that continues for more than a couple of minutes can result in the dog’s body temperature rising. This rising of body temperature is called hyperthermia which has its own set of issues and concerns, so be cautious of your dog’s temperature elevating.

Status epilepticus, a very serious and life-threatening situation, occurs when a seizure lasts for longer than five minutes. Without the aid of intravenous anticonvulsants to stop the seizure activity, it’s possible a dog can suffer irreversible brain damage and possibly even death. Receiving treatment from a veterinarian immediately is essential if your dog displays signs of status epilepticus.

Treatment for seizures in dogs

The treatment for your dog’s seizures will depend in part on the underlying cause. For example, the treatment for a suspected case of toxicity will differ from the treatment for a traumatic brain injury or metabolic disorder.

In some cases, addressing the underlying cause will halt seizure activity. In others, medication will be required to control your dog’s seizures. Typically, veterinarians recommend treating seizures if they occur more frequently than every six to eight weeks, if multiple seizures rapidly follow one another (“cluster” seizures), or if multiple seizures take place within 24 hours.

The most common medications available for treating seizures in dogs are levetiracetam (Keppra), phenobarbital and potassium bromide. Levetiracetam is often the first drug recommended because of its minimal side effects. Phenobarbital may also be the first drug recommended, although it can take up to two weeks to take effect. Potassium bromide can be used alone or with levetiracetam and/or phenobarbital. Gabapentin is occasionally used to treat seizures but is now more often used as a pain medication.

If these drugs lead to serious side effects or are ineffective on their own, veterinarians may also prescribe zonisamide, and in cases of severe seizures while the dog is in the hospital, intravenous diazepam (Valium). Diazepam can also be used as a rectal suppository at home to control severe “breakthrough” seizures.

Is there a cure for seizures in dogs?

There is no cure for seizures, as seizures are a symptom of an underlying condition, not a disease. However, resolving the underlying condition may also address the seizures. In other cases, like idiopathic epilepsy, seizures may be a lifelong medical condition that will need to be managed by your veterinarian.

Are seizures contagious for humans or other pets?

Seizures are not contagious for humans or other pets unless the underlying condition or infection, such as toxoplasma gondii, is contagious.

What is the cost of treating seizures in dogs?

The cost for treating seizures will vary depending on the underlying cause, extent of additional symptoms, severity of the seizures, the diagnostic testing performed, and medication choice. Severe cases that require hospitalization may cost more than the treatment for mild and infrequent seizure activity. The diagnostic process is often expensive, as the diagnostic tests and imaging needed to accurately diagnose the underlying condition range in price. Additionally, medications will require follow up visits and testing to gauge the accurate dosage.

Recovery and management of seizures in dogs

Managing seizure disorders in dogs is not always straightforward. Depending on the underlying condition, you can expect follow-up appointments, medication adjustments, and additional treatments and therapies. In cases of idiopathic epilepsy, it can take time for the medication to control your dog’s seizures, and in some cases, it may not be possible to control the seizures with medication. It’s also important to monitor your dog for any potentially dangerous side effects of medication, like liver and kidney damage.

Seizures caused by an underlying condition often require additional tests, veterinary visits, and medications to manage both the condition and any other side effects and symptoms. The frequency of follow-up visits will be determined by the underlying condition, as will the extent to which you as the owner need to manage the condition.

Monitor the frequency and duration of your dog’s seizures by recording the date, time, and duration, as well as recording the seizure when possible will help your veterinarian. Unless your dog is in danger of hurting herself, however, owners should never attempt to touch or hold their dog during a seizure. This can result in unintended injuries like bites, as dogs may not be conscious of their actions or surroundings directly before, during, and after a seizure.

Some causes of seizures can be fatal. In these cases, your veterinarian will discuss your dog’s prognosis and help you make any necessary quality-of-life decisions.

How to prevent seizures in dogs

Most causes of seizures in dogs are not preventable. Keeping your dog away from household toxins will help prevent seizures related to toxicity, but in most cases, the underlying condition is not avoidable. However, regular veterinary visits, a balanced diet, and exercise will keep your dog in good health, increasing their chances of a good prognosis.

Is there a vaccine for seizures in dogs?

There is no vaccine for seizures. However, keeping your dog up to date on her core vaccines will help prevent seizures associated with dangerous contagious viruses like rabies.

Summary of seizures in dogs

Most cases of seizures in dogs are not preventable, but appropriate veterinary care and regular veterinary check-ups may help your veterinarian catch early warning signs of some of the underlying conditions that can cause seizures in dogs.

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