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Seizures and Epilepsy in Dogs: Causes and Treatment

Seeing your beloved dog go through a seizure for the first time can be pretty scary, not least because he can't speak to you and let you know what is happening. 

As a first time dog owner, I was shocked to see our young Belgian Tervueren collapse on the grass after a trip to the local dog park when he was less than a year old, after having seemingly lost complete use of his back legs. He was also panting and drooling and he looked seriously distressed.

Fearing a paralysis tick, he was immediately whisked away to our local vet, where after a thorough examination no tick was found and he progressively came down. This was however a mild attack and since that day, we have only witnessed around two episodes of epilectic seizures each year.

As a responsible dog owner, you need to learn to identify both the symptoms and appropriate responses for both seizures and strokes so that you can help your pooch if needed.

CAUSES

Seizures and strokes have different root causes in dogs, as they do in humans. A seizure is the result of an electrical malfunction in the brain, when an electrical storm in the brain causes seizure symptoms. If your dog has repeated seizures over time, your veterinarian might diagnose canine epilepsy. Epilepsy can have a genetic basis or it can result from an injury to the brain or chemical imbalance. 


Seizures in dogs are common, with a prevalence of 0.5% to 5.7%. Idiopathic epilepsy is genetic in many dog breeds and is familial, meaning that it runs in certain families or lines of animals. 

The breeds for which a genetic factor is either proved or highly suspected include the Beagle, Belgian Tervueren, Dachshund, German Shepherd Dog and the 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 Terriers.

Causes for seizures in older dogs may be an underlying heart condition, kidney or liver condition, or there may be a tumour on the brain. This last possibility is, thankfully, not all that common. Traumatic injuries to the head can lead to fits in any age dog, as can infectious causes, such as viruses (canine distemper) or bacteria.

A fit can also be caused by low blood sugar whether due to insulin shock, genetic hypoglycemia or just a general inability of the liver to store and release glycogen in a timely manner. Occasionally poisons, such as snail bait (metaldehyde) will cause a dog to fit. In any of the above cases it is important to treat the underlying problem, if possible, and so eliminate or control the fits that way.

Seizures can also be caused by strokes, although the root cause of a stroke is physical rather than electrical. A stroke is caused when an artery becomes blocked, or bleeding occurs within the brain.

SYMPTOMS 

Signs of an impending seizure may include a period of warning, where the dog – as with humans - will experience what is called an aura. During this time your dog may appear worried, stressed, or frightened. It may experience visual disturbances and may seek help from his owner.

We certainly experience the latter every single time, as our dog will come and find us in any part of the house before an episode. Just as there are some dogs that can sense when their epileptic owner is going to have a seizure, other dogs can also detect when another member of the pack is going to have an epileptic episode. Since the arrival of our second dog (Belgian Malinois) we noticed him sniffing his brother with intent at the onset of an episode, possibly detecting a change in pheromones?

In many cases, a certain set of symptoms or activities (a prodrome) can precede a seizure.

Your dog may experience contractions in his limbs or muscles, and may have difficulty controlling urination and bowel movements and  obviously the last thing he needs is a big fuss about it. He may also experience an altered mental status before progressing to a seizure, as well as develop other neurological symptoms.

If the seizure is mild, (minor tremor or shaking of the head) it is referred to as a “Petit Mal”. 
If the signs are more extreme (he is rendered helpless by uncontrollable muscle spasms), it is considered to be a full-blown, tonic, clonic, “Grand Mal”. Even though the duration of the seizure usually lasts only a few minutes it can go on for several hours, although this is, thankfully, very rare. 

Complex partial seizures (formerly known as psychomotor seizures) can be much more difficult to recognise. They cause no typical convulsions and only result in unusual behaviour. Commonly reported behaviours associated with these complex partial seizures include: frenzied barking, licking or chewing themselves, staring into space, snapping at invisible objects and accidental defecation or urination.

Like general seizures, partial seizures (both ‘standard’ and complex) are preceded by an aura phase. They also result in impaired awareness and responsiveness.



Perhaps the most obvious symptoms of a stroke are problems with balance and movement. You might see your dog tilting his head to one side, or having trouble walking. If one side of the brain is damaged by a stroke, your dog might walk in circles while leaning toward the damaged side of the brain.

After a stroke, your dog might have problems with bowel and bladder control. Incontinence is a symptom of a seizure in progress, but is unlikely to be a continuing problem after a seizure has ended. Other seizure symptoms include falling over, shaking and having rigid, jerking convulsions in part or all of the body. Your dog's eyes might roll back during a seizure, and consciousness might be lost for a period of time.

Dogs which suffer from primary epilepsy will usually have a fit when they are relaxed or asleep. 


The severity of the fit is variable; it may be very mild and so not noticed at all by anyone. Where signs are seen, your dog may collapse have spasms and paddle with his feet. This usually lasts only a few seconds, possibly up to two minutes, but when you see it happening to your dog, you feel it lasts much longer. 

During and after his fit, your dog is unaware of his surroundings and can react unpredictably. There is a danger that a normally placid dog will inadvertently bite. Recovery is again variable, sometimes taking several hours, during which time your dog may appear lightly un-coordinated, bumping into things, apparently blind, or pacing incessantly.

WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?

Always consult an experienced veterinarian regarding the health and treatment of your pet. If you suspect your dog is having a stroke, get immediate veterinary assistance. Strokes are relatively unusual in dogs, and the recovery chance increases if the dog survives and starts to recover in the days following the stroke.

In the case of a seizure, you can help prevent further injury to your dog by clearing away any furniture or obstacles in the vicinity of your dog. Move your seizing dog away from hazards such as open fire or swimming pools, stairs, etc. but otherwise leave the dog where he falls. The general advice is to put soft pillows or blankets around his head and back and to keep other pets away. 




In our experience we found that holding our dog tight whilst speaking to him whilst he is experiencing a seizure, seems to comfort him and speed up the recovery period.

Once he has regained full consciousness and is able to move unaided, your dog will still require a quiet space to rest and recover and he’s also likely to be extremely thirsty and/or hungry after all the uncontrolled drooling.

POSSIBLE RESPONSE 

A one-off seizure might not require any specific treatment. If your dog however is experiencing regular epileptic seizures, your veterinarian might prescribe anti-seizure medications.

You can help prevent further seizures by giving your dog a regular schedule for eating (we noticed in our case a distinct correlation with blood sugar levels as a seizure would come on within an hour after his dinner time) and sleeping. We did a lot of research at that point and changed our dog’s diet to a grain-free, premium food high both in protein and fats, referred to as a ketogenic diet. Since that time, our dog has not experienced any seizures around meal times.

Common advice is not to allow your dog to jump on and off surfaces such as couches: in small breeds with tendencies toward back problems, a back or neck injury can precipitate a seizure.

If your dog has had a stroke, your vet will try to determine the cause before prescribing treatment. If the stroke involved swelling of the brain, corticosteroids are commonly prescribed to reduce swelling. Dogs can recover well from strokes, often within only a few weeks. However, some permanent damage or changes can remain.

The more seizures a dog has, the more likely there is to be damage among the neurons in the brain, and the more likely the animal is to seize again.


TREATMENT

In some cases, certain medical procedures, including surgery to remove tumours that may contribute to seizures, may be needed. Drugs may help reduce the frequency of seizures for some animals. Some corticosteroid medications, anti-epileptic, and anti-convulsant medications may also help to reduce the frequency of seizures. The type of medications given will depend on the type of epilepsy your dog has as well as other underlying health conditions .

The two most commonly used prescription anti-seizure medications for pets were phenobarbital (PB) and potassium bromide (KBr).

However even when diets, dosages, and all else remains ideal, between 25-33% of dogs are not helped by either PB or KBr.

Unfortunately these medications may have serious side effects in your pet: liver damage, drowsiness, weight gain, change in personality, and interfering with bone marrow so that your pet has insufficient infection-fighting white blood cells and blood clotting cells (thrombocytes).

A new-generation drug called Pregabalin is now available and has been proven to be a safe and effective medication for seizure control as well as an effective modulator for neuropathic pain. There are some instances in which the use of Pregabalin should be closely guarded: if your dog takes ACE inhibitors, antidepressants, antihistamines, anti-anxiety medications, narcotic pain medications, sedatives, tranquilisers, or any other anticonvulsant medication for seizure control.

Pregabalin should be avoided in pets that are pregnant or nursing, as well as in those with a known sensitivity to the drug.

Decreasing the Side Effects


To decrease the possibility of side effects—which are more severe as the dosage is increased—some veterinarians recommend using smaller amounts of two medications rather than a large amount of one medication. Veterinarians also recommend avoiding toxins and using supplements to support the brain and liver so that medication dosages can be kept to a minimum.

If your pet is diagnosed with seizures and prescribed these medications, be aware that PB and KBr are slow to become effective. Phenobarbital takes two weeks to reach a steady state and KBr takes three to four months. Periodic blood tests will be necessary to measure your pet's blood levels.

Which Pets Should Take Anti-Seizure Medication?

Anti-seizure medication is recommended for pets that have more than one seizure every four to six weeks, have cluster seizures, have extremely violent seizures, are less than a year old when seizures begin, have structural problems within the brain causing the seizure (hydrocephalus, cancer), or are aggressive during recovery.

Living and Management

As with every illness, early treatment and proper care are vital to your dog’s general health and wellness. Younger dogs are more at risk for severe forms of certain types of epilepsy, including primary and idiopathic epilepsy.

With our dog’s diagnostic occurring before he was 12 months old, we were worried about the possible increase in frequency or severity of his attacks and had he suffered from more than 2 on average per year, we would definitely consider using the latest medication to control his seizures.

Make sure you take your dog to your veterinarian early if you suspect it may be at risk for this, or any other type of disease. Together, you and your veterinarian can determine the best possible course of action for your dog.
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