Seizure Disorders in Dogs: Canine Epilepsy and Other Causes of Seizures Which Affect Dogs

March 8, 2019
As a dog owner with over 25 years of experience, I can attest that having a dog is one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened in my life. The companionship and joy they bring is incomparable.

Seizure activity in a dog is a frightening experience. Often, owners are unprepared and not certain what to do for their seizing dog.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs?

There may be many causes for seizures in dogs. Canine epilepsy is probably the most commonly diagnosed seizure disorder, but other causes of seizures in dogs need to be ruled out also. These include:

  • liver disorders
  • toxins or poisons
  • encephalitis
  • encephalopathies (brain disorders)
  • brain tumors
  • electrolyte abnormalities in the blood such as low calcium levels
  • hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • hypothyroidism

Often, the exact cause of the seizure activity cannot be established and these disorders are usually referred to as canine epilepsy.

How are Seizure Disorders in Dogs Diagnosed?

The diagnostic work-up of a dog experiencing seizures may include:

  • a basic blood screen consisting of a complete blood count, a blood chemistry panel with electrolytes included and a thyroid screen.
  • a urinalysis (an evaluation of the dog's urine).
  • diagnostic imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed axial tomography (CAT scan).
  • cerebrospinal analysis (a spinal tap).

Even with advanced diagnostics such as MRI or CAT scans, exact diagnosis may be elusive. Many seizure disorders in dogs are never definitively diagnosed, despite exhaustive diagnostic investigation. In addition, these advanced imaging tests may not be widely available in smaller communities and/or may be cost prohibitive for many dog owners.

How are Seizure Disorders in Dogs Treated?

Treatments for seizure disorders in dogs depend on the cause of the seizures. If possible, correcting the underlying cause of the seizure behavior is the most effective treatment. However, often the underlying cause is not known and the goal of treating seizure disorders in these dogs becomes controlling the seizure activity the dog is experiencing.

There are many different drugs which may be employed to help control seizure activity in dogs. These include:

  • phenobarbital
  • potassium bromide
  • gabapentin
  • zonisamide
  • chlorazepate
  • levetiracetam

The most commonly used anticonvulsant in seizure disorders is phenobarbital followed by potassium bromide. These medications may be administered together or separately.

When is Anticonvulsant Therapy Recommended?

Anticonvulsant medication may not be necessary for the dog who has only occasional mild seizure activity. Most veterinarians recommend beginning medications to help prevent seizures:

  • • if the seizure activity occurs more often than once per month.
  • • if clusters of seizures occur, one right after another.
  • • if the dog has a seizure which does not end without medical intervention.
  • • if the dog is of a breed predisposed to epilepsy which is difficult to control. These breeds would include German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters and Saint Bernards.

What Should a Dog Owner Do if Their Dog Suffers a Seizure?

If your dog has a seizure, remain calm. Your dog can sense your emotions and a panic reaction on your part may make your dog's condition worse.

Make certain your dog is in a safe area, away from stairs and sharp objects. Gently stroke your pet and talk calmly and soothingly to him. Avoid going near your dog's mouth while your dog is having a seizure. Your dog is unable to control his muscle movements during this time and may inadvertently bite you.

If the seizure your dog is experiencing does not end in five to ten minutes, transport your dog to a veterinary emergency facility immediately.

Any dog which has experienced a seizure, even if fully recovered from the seizure, should be examined by a veterinarian.

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