Dog seizures can be frightening. Seeing your dog in the clutches of a seizure can be terrifying. It’s the same as a convulsion and used to be called a fit. This common neurological condition is a temporary, involuntary disturbance of normal brain function. The key symptom is uncontrollable muscle spasms.
Seizures result from abnormal bursts of activity in the brain. Dog seizures have many causes, and take many forms. Epilepsy is a term used to describe repeated episodes of seizures. Epilepsy may consist of single seizures, or clusters. These may be infrequent and sudden, or may occur at regular intervals.
What happens during a typical seizure? What are the symptoms of seizures in dogs?
Seizures usually have 4 phases, starting with a pre-ictal episode called prodrome then the aura phase, then the “ictal” phase from the Latin word, ictus, meaning a strike or blow. Finally, the post-ictal phase occurs after the seizure.
Symptoms may be present for up to a few days before the actual seizure.
Pre-Ictal phase of seizures in dogs
During the pre-ictal phase, your dog may:
- Appear nervous
- Come to you for comfort
- Wander around your home aimlessly
- Lick its lips
- Stare at nothing – sometimes called “star-gazing”
- Bark at nothing
- Chomping actions – sometimes called “fly-snapping”
These pre-warnings of a dog seizure may last a few minutes to a few hours. If you observe these signs, contact Airvet to discuss options with a qualified professional.
Aura phase of seizures in dogs
The next phase is called the aura, where these symptoms escalate, just before the full-blown convulsions begin. If possible, secure your dog in an empty room or other quiet, safe, dog-proof space where your pet will not knock over furniture, tangle in electrical cords or otherwise harm himself. Be sure windows and doors are secured.
Ictal phase of seizures in dogs
During the ictal phase which follows, your dog may seem dazed and disoriented. Your pet’s pupils may be dilated. In severe cases, your dog may experience a grand mal seizure, identified by loss of consciousness and collapse. Your dog’s body may go rigid, and may fall over on its side and try to “dog paddle” or scramble its paws as if running, while its muscles twitch and spasm. Dogs often arch their heads back, rolling their eyes back in their sockets. Loss of bladder and bowel control and uncontrollable drooling are common during this phase.
Will a dog swallow its tongue during a seizure?
Seizures aren’t easy to look at, and there’s a lot of misinformation surrounding these experiences. One old-time belief is that seizures make your dog swallow its tongue. It’s simply not true.
Dogs do not try to swallow their tongues (it is physically impossible), so don’t insert anything into the mouth of your pet – especially your fingers. The stress and loss of motor control which define the experience can easily result in a bite, from even the sweetest canine.
Are seizures painful for dogs?
You may be surprised to learn that, though disturbing, a short isolated seizure is rarely dangerous to your dog. You can take comfort in knowing that seizures are rarely painful, but your dog may whine and vocalize in response to confusion.
However, if the ictus phase lasts more than 5 minutes, it’s called status epilepticus, and this condition may result in irreversible brain damage unless your pet receives immediate medical care.
The same goes for clusters of seizures, which can damage your dog’s brain.
If you’re enrolled in Airvet’s Monthly Membership Program and our veterinary professionals determine your dog is facing a life-threatening emergency, the fund will cover the cost of diagnostics and stabilization of your pet.
Post-Ictal phase of seizures in dogs
The post-ictal phase follows immediately, and your dog may pace and appear confused as she or he regains normal balance and awareness. Some dog parents report that their dog appears drugged or drunk in this phase. Temporary blindness is one of the more alarming, but rare, signs of dog seizures during this phase.
What types of seizures are common in dogs?
Dog seizures are typically identified as one of these three conditions:
- Generalized, also known as tonic-clonic seizures
- Focal or partial seizures
- Focal or partial seizures with secondary symptoms
Tonic-clonic seizures in dogs
Tonic-clonic seizures are generalized seizures. This means that the entire body is potentially involved, grand mal being one of these. This type of seizure results from both hemispheres of the brain misfiring. The name for this type of seizure means stiffening (tonic) and twitching-jerking (clonic). Your dog may seem to spring forward to land on its back (versus simply sinking to the floor) and tremble and spasm.
Atonic seizures in dogs
Atonic seizure symptoms often accompany the tonic symptoms, sometimes called “drop attacks.” Your pet goes limp and loses consciousness for a few seconds (then rebounds quickly).
Petit mal seizures in dogs
Petit mal seizures, also called absence seizures, are rare in dogs. Signs of petit mal dog seizure may include lip-licking, head-shaking, trembling, staring, eyes rolling up and back. Note that this brief form of seizure can escalate into grand mal if untreated.
Myoclonic seizures in dogs
In a myoclonic seizure, your dog’s muscles will contract rapidly, and the pelvic and facial muscles may jerk or twitch.
Partial of focal seizures in dogs
Partial or focal seizures are caused when one small area of the nerve cells in one hemisphere of your dog’s brain misfire. Signs may be the sudden favoring of one side: moving only one limb, curving the body to one side, turning of the head / cocking of the head, and twitching or jerking confined to one side. Your dog’s hair may stand up on end, and your pet may experience a loss of balance along with uncharacteristic snapping, yelping, impulsive running, temporary changes in hearing and vision, and changes in appetite and thirst often accompany a partial seizure.
Keeping track of your dog’s seizures
Whether your dog is experiencing a first seizure, or even if your pet has a history of seizures, it’s helpful to keep track of them by recording how long the seizure lasts, as well as any observations of unusual behavior. We recommend keeping a video seizure log to share with your pet’s veterinarian. Record each seizure with your phone, and keep a notebook to record details. Discuss these notes with your vet to develop a strategy for dealing with this condition.
What are the causes of dog seizures?
Several factors may contribute to the cause of your dog’s seizure. Idiopathic epilepsy is a common cause of seizure in dogs, but there are many others – and understanding the potential origins of your dog’s seizures may help you and your vet discover and treat an underlying condition.
Idiopathic means that the specific source of the condition is unknown (from the Greek idios, private or personal, plus pathos), but this form of epilepsy is apparently inherited. Future gene research will hopefully reveal the specific factors.
Our environment is filled with risks to our pets, from swallowing antifreeze and human prescriptions to gulping a random pellet of rat poison left as bait (or poisoned rats discovered during your dog’s routine exploring). The artificial sweetener xylitol, found in many types of gum, toothpaste, and baked goods is a frequent cause of poisoning in pets.
Low thyroid function:
Called hypothyroidism, low thyroid function can also cause lethargy and weight gain. If your veterinarian thinks this might be a possibility for your dog, they can send your dog’s blood sample to a laboratory, who will run a full thyroid test profile. It’s worth doing since seizures related to thyroid imbalance are generally quite responsive to thyroid medication, and untreated hypothyroidism can cause many other symptoms.
The kidneys help regulate hydration and body salt levels, and filter toxins out of the blood. In the case of advanced kidney disease, seizures can result from the build-up of toxins in the blood. And for dogs known to have long-term renal disease, seizures will often signal the end of life. In a dog without a chronic kidney disease diagnosis, an acute episode of kidney trauma and resulting seizure may be a response to antifreeze or other toxicity.
High or low blood sugar:
Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) literally confuse the mammalian brain, both human and canine. Hypoglycemia means that an inadequate glucose supply is reaching the brain, resulting in confusion, ataxia (stumbling, staggering, spastic eye movements) and other elements of a seizure. Low blood sugar can be caused by certain toxins, overdose of insulin in diabetics, and some liver and pancreatic diseases.
Electrolytes are ionized salts that circulate through the body and play a crucial role in nutrient absorption and cell osmosis. Seizures may be the sole presenting symptom of this condition. This imbalance may relate to poorly regulated diabetes, toxin ingestion, or intestinal inflammation.
Severe anemia can cause seizures in dogs. Anemia refers to a reduced number of red blood cells or lowered hemoglobin (the protein inside red blood cells). Hemoglobin carries oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from your dog’s brain and body, and shortages and interruptions in this vital process can result in seizure.
Trauma to the head can result in agitated neural activity in the brain, which often triggers a dog seizure. Brain injury may be the result of high-impact trauma, like being hit by a car. Brain injury can also occur without blunt force: prolonged low oxygen levels, for example, literally starve the brain. Fever, respiratory arrest, cardiac failure, extreme decrease in body temperature, radically high or low blood pressure, brain tumor, brain cancer, swelling and encephalitis in the brain, bleeding into the brain from a blood-clotting disorder, severely low blood sugar levels (see “high or low blood sugar” above), and many other disorders may also cause disturbance in the brain, triggering seizure.
Abdominal epilepsy is a very rare condition in dogs. If ulcerative colitis, constipation, chronic diarrhea or manic itching accompanies your dog’s seizures, the condition may be abdominal epilepsy.
Dog seizures & rabies:
Rabies is caused by a virus, transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. The virus causes acute inflammation of the brain, producing aggression and bizarre behavior. With credit to decades of rabies vaccinations administered to companion animals, rabid dogs and cats are rare in America. If someone hasn’t lived with dogs, witnessing a seizure may raise fears of rabies.
To rule out rabies as a likely cause for your dog’s seizure, answer the following two questions.
- First, is it possible that your dog was bitten by any of these rabies carriers (bats, foxes, raccoons and/or skunks)?
- Secondly, has your dog received regular inoculation against rabies?
If you answered “No” to the first question and “Yes” to the second, it is highly unlikely that your dog’s seizures are a result of being rabid.
However, in the rare scenario in which rabies is a likelihood in your pet, do not approach it. Call your local animal control officer for advice on how to proceed.
Collapsing vs. seizure in dogs
Some of these potential sources of seizure may also fall into the category of what is called a “faint” or “collapse” versus a true seizure. A collapse of cardiovascular origin, for example, may happen when the heart cannot maintain circulation to the brain and is starved of oxygen. A collapse of neurological origin may occur when the vagus nerve is overstimulated. This slows the heart rate, causing blood pressure to drop.
The most common cause of dogs fainting is irregular heartbeat. A few differences between a collapse and a seizure:
- A collapse gives no warning signs
- In a collapse, the dog’s muscles are normal and relaxed – no twitching, jerking, thrashing
- No loss of bladder or bowel control
- Lasts around 30 seconds (whereas seizures last longer, usually a few minutes)
If your dog experiences a collapse or fainting episode, it is best to have an exam by a veterinarian right away.
How are seizures treated in dogs?
The short answer is that it depends.
When a dog has their first seizure, it is important to have them examined by a veterinarian in a timely manner. Often, routine blood work will be run. Some seizures occur as a symptom of an underlying condition, so identifying this condition will be instrumental in reducing the frequency of your pet’s seizures.
Idiopathic epilepsy is usually diagnosed by ruling out other causes. It can be treated, but it cannot be cured. In some cases, young dogs grow out of it. In most cases, symptoms can be managed and the seizures may be controlled, making life easier for your dog and you.
Medications can be helpful in the treatment of seizures in dogs, once the source of the seizures is determined. Benzodiazepines, anticonvulsants, and barbiturates are a few of the drug classes that are used to treat seizures in dogs. CBD oil is being investigated as a possible aid in seizure control, but is not currently recommended for this problem. Do not attempt to medicate your dog yourself. Instead, talk to a licensed veterinary professional about the important business of investigating and treating your dog’s seizures. Your veterinarian will be able to walk you through the various risks and benefits associated with the treatment options and manage your expectations.
Short seizures in themselves generally are not especially dangerous or painful to your dog, although we know it’s hard to believe it when you’re witnessing your dog experiencing a seizure. Although a seizure may not be immediately life-threatening to your dog, minimizing the total number of seizures and decreasing their frequency is important.
Concerned about your dog’s seizures? Download the FREE Airvet app now. Talk to a licensed vet today.