Epilepsy (Seizures)

Introduction

Seizures (epilepsy, convulsions) in a dog can be very frightening. Although they are not uncommon in dogs many of them only have a single fit in their lifetime. If a dog has more than one fit, most likely that dog has epilepsy. Just as in humans, there are medications for dogs that can control the seizures and allow the dog to live a long fulfilling life.


What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy means repeated convulsions (fits) due to abnormal activity in the brain. It is caused by a problem in the brain itself. If the convulsions (fits) occur because of a problem elsewhere in the body, e.g., a heart ailment that stops oxygen from reaching the brain, this is not epilepsy.


What happens during a fit?

Some dogs seem to have an intuition when they are about to have a fit. They often just seek out their owners' company and sit beside them. Once a dog starts to convulse, most of the time is unconscious. The dog cannot hear or respond to anything or anyone. Most of the times the dogs fall onto their side, making running movements with their legs and sometimes crying out, losing control of their bowels or bladder. Most fits last between 1 and 3 minutes - it is worth making a note of the time the fit starts and ends because it often seems that a fit goes on for a lot longer than it really does. After fits, dogs behave in different ways. Some just get up and carry on with what they were doing, whilst others appear dazed and confused for up to 24 hours afterwards. Dogs often have a set pattern of behaviour that they follow after every fit, e.g., going for a drink of water or asking to go out in the garden to the toilet. A dog that has had more than one fit will be noticed to follow a certain pattern of behaviour which is typical for themselves.


When do epileptic fits occur?

Most epileptic fits occur while the dog is relaxed and resting quietly. It is very rare for a fit to occur at exercise. Often fits occur in the evening or at night, and commonly follow a pattern that is recognized specifically for each dog.



What to do while your dog is having an epileptic fit?

  1. Stay calm.

  2. Remember that the dog is unconscious during the fit and is not in pain or distress.

  3. The fit itself is likely to be more distressing for you than for your pet.

  4. Make sure that your dog is not in a position to injure himself, e.g., by falling down the stairs.

  5. Do not try to interfere with him.

  6. Never try to put your hand inside his mouth during a fit as you will very likely get bitten.


Does the fit harm the dog?

Rarely do dogs injure themselves during a fit. Occasionally, they may bite their tongue and there may appear to be a lot of blood but is unlikely to be serious. A fit that goes on for longer than 10 minutes can cause brain damage.


When to contact the veterinary surgeon?

Make a note of the time immediately your dog starts a fit. If the dog comes out of the fit within 5 minutes, allow him time to recover quietly before contacting the vet. If it is the first fit the dog has had, the vet may ask you to take the dog to the surgery in the next routine appointment for a check, provided he has no more fits in the meantime. It is far better for the dog to recover quietly at home rather than be bundled into the car and carted off to the vets straight away. However, if the dog does not come out of the fit within 5 minutes, or has repeated fits close together, then you should contact your vet immediately for the dog to be seen straight away. Always call your vets practice before turning up at the surgery to be sure that there is someone at the surgery who can help you.


How is epilepsy detected in a dog?

There are many things besides epilepsy that cause fits in dogs. When the dog is first examined, it is not straightforward for the veterinarian to know whether the dog has epilepsy or another condition. Epilepsy most commonly starts in dogs between 1 and 5 years of age, so dogs outside this range are more likely to be having a different problem. There is a whole range of tests that need to be done to make sure that there is no other cause of the fits. These include blood tests and possibly X-rays, or other tests such as brain scanning. If no other cause is found, then a diagnosis of epilepsy may be made.


Why do dogs get epilepsy?

There is no apparent reason why dogs should develop epilepsy. In some breeds of dogs, most notably the German Shepherd Dog, it is inherited and is most often seen in males. Sometimes it is the result of minor damage to the brain caused by a blow to the head or as a result of oxygen starvation during a difficult birth. Usually, the fits start many years after the damage has occurred so it is not easy to make a connection between the two events.


What is the treatment that will stop the fits?

If a dog has had only one fit, it is advisable to wait before starting any treatment. The drugs used to treat epilepsy often do not stop the fits altogether but makes them less frequent. Therefore, it is important to know how often the fits would happen without treatment to be sure that the treatment is having an effect. Once a dog starts on the treatment, it is likely that this will have to be continued for the rest of the dog's life. As some dogs only ever have one fit, they may end up having treatment that they did not need. Once a dog starts on epilepsy tablets, these must be given at roughly the same time every day. If this is stopped suddenly, this may cause the dog to fit again. It often takes a few months to get the dose of the drug just right for a dog. During this time the vet keeps regular contact with you and may need to take a number of blood samples from the dog to check that the blood levels of the drug are not too high or too low.


Do dogs get better?

Rarely do epileptic dogs stop having fits altogether. Drugs may control the fits so that they do not affect the dog's lifestyle but, in most cases, if the treatment is stopped, the fits always come back. However, provided the dog is checked regularly to ensure that the drugs are not causing any side effects, many epileptic dogs lead a full and happy life.


References

Berendt, M., Gredal, H., Ersbøll, A. K., & Alving, J. (2007). Premature death, risk factors, and life patterns in dogs with epilepsy. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 21(4), 754-759.


Packer, R. M., & Volk, H. A. (2015). Epilepsy beyond seizures: a review of the impact of epilepsy and its comorbidities on health‐related quality of life in dogs. Veterinary Record, 177(12), 306-315.


Thomas, W. B. (2000). Idiopathic epilepsy in dogs. Veterinary clinics of North America: Small animal practice, 30(1), 183-206.


Monteiro, R., Anderson, T. J., Innocent, G., Evans, N. P., Penderis, J. (2009 ). Variations in serum concentration of phenobarbitone in dogs receiving regular twice-daily doses in relation to the times of administration. Veterinary Record,165(19), 556-8. doi: 10.1136/vr.165.19.556. PMID: 19897869.


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