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Epilepsy in dogs: the causes and the symptoms

Black and white dog advice
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Epilepsy is a serious medical condition that affects dogs as well as their human owners. Although it can be quite distressing,  epilepsy in dogs is treatable

By Ashley Murphy

What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that disturbs the senses, causing fits and convulsions. It's associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain, and seizures can be triggered by changes in the environment, like bright light or loud noises, or even by different emotional states, like excitement or stress. Its usually diagnosed after more than one seizure, and although there is still no cure, it can be managed with medication and regular check-ups.  

What causes epilepsy in dogs?

Epilepsy can affect any household pets, but it's more common in dogs. Although it can appear at any age, it usually manifests after 2-3 years. As with all medical conditions, certain breeds are more at risk. These include:

  • Irish Setters
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Dachshunds
  • Poodles
  • German Shepherds.

Idiopathic epilepsy in dogs is the most common type of the disorder. It's an inherited condition, and as of yet, experts do not know the exact cause. It can also manifest after serious brain trauma, liver disease, kidney failure, or ingestion of toxins.

What do epileptic fits in dogs look like?

There are normally a few warning signs before a fit. Some dogs may appear confused or dizzy, and others will stare off into the distance. They can also look agitated or over-excited. Once the fit begins, you may see the following behaviours:

  • Fierce trembling or jerking.
  • Glazed eyes.
  • They may dribble.
  • Their jaw could be clamped shut.
  • They might wee or poo during the fit.
  • They might stop reacting to your voice or touch.

What do I do If my dog is having an epileptic fit?

A fit can be frightening to see, especially for the first time. But remember that fits are not immediately life-threatening, so try to stay calm. This is the best thing you can do as you’ll be in a much better position to manage the seizure. As disturbing as they can look, seizures don't cause any pain, but you still keep your dog safe.  Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

  • Clear the space around your dog; this way they're less likely to do themselves any damage.
  • Manage the environment. Bright light and loud noise can trigger seizures. So turn off the tv, the radio, and switch off all the lights.
  • Don’t restrain them. They’re not in control of their movements and restraining could do more harm than good.
  • Don’t wrap them in blankets - dogs can overheat during and after seizures so keep them cool instead
  • If possible, time the seizure, or even video it. This might sound strange, but the more information your vet has, the better they can treat their patient.
  • Contrary to popular belief, dogs don't swallow their tongues during a seizure. So don't puy your fingers into their mouth; it's highly likely you'll get a bite.

If your dog has a fit, contact a vet for advice. Not all seizures indicate epilepsy, and your vet will provide the best advice based on the information you've given them. However, if the fit lasts longer than two minutes, or your dog has two or more seizure in one day, get them to a vet immediately. Following a fit, your dog will appear dazed and confused. So take them to a quiet place where they can rest. Speak to them softly. Let them know you're there, but try not to overstimulate them. They need to recover in their own time.

How is epilepsy treated and managed?

The most common medications to manage epilepsy in dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide. They both work as anti-convulsants by decreasing seizure activity in the central nervous system. It can take up to four months to have the desired effect, so some veterinarians prescribe a higher dose during the first few weeks. This is known as a ‘loading dose’ and although its an effective type of treatment, you will need to keep an eye out for any potential side effects, such as vomiting, constipation, or loss of appetite.

After the medication starts doing its job, you'll need to take your dog for regular check-ups and blood tests. This is to make sure they're receiving the appropriate doses and it's more than likely that your dog will be taking this medication for the rest of their life. Even if they go many years without a fit, research has shown that discontinuing the drug can cause further seizures.

In the meantime, certain alternative medicines appear to help manage the condition. CBD oil, homoeopathy, and even a change in diet may have positive effects.

It's natural to be concerned about your dog's health, and seizures can be very distressing to witness. The most important thing is to stay calm, manage the environment, and then get your dog the help it needs. Although it's usually a life-long condition, epilepsy in itself is not life-threatening. So with the right medication and care, an epileptic dog can still be a very happy dog!