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Dog seizures: signs and what to do

Jack Russell dog's head in owners hand advice

Dogs will twitch or even collapse during a seizure.

© Shutterstock

Your dog may well have a seizure at some point, but how would you help your pet get through such an episode?

By Dr. Pete Wedderburn, BVM&S CertVR MRCVS

Updated on the 11/08/2020, 15:43

Seizures are a common problem in dogs. Many people don’t understand what they are nor what to do if their pet develops seizures. This article aims to help you undertand them.

What is a seizure or epilepsy?

A seizure (also known as a fit or convulsion) happens because of sudden, abnormal electrical activity in the brain, resulting in random, uncontrolled physical movements, along with altered or loss of consciousness.

What do seizures look like in a dog?

There are two types of seizures: focal and general. A partial or focal seizure might involve involuntary twitching of one or more parts of the body (e.g. the side of the face). Generalised or grand mal seizures are more common. Dogs may experience complete collapse, thrashing around on the ground, vocalising, and sometimes passing urine and faeces. This usually lasts for just a couple of minutes, but in rare cases a seizure can continue for much longer.

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What causes seizures in dogs?

There are many possible causes for seizures in dogs. In single episodes, which is a one-off seizure, common causes include a metabolic disturbance (such as low-blood glucose), head trauma, or some types of poisoning.

Dogs may also experience multiple episodes. In young adult dogs, repeated seizures are most likely to be caused by epilepsy (so-called “primary” or “idiopathic” epilepsy). Epilepsy in dogs has an unknown cause; seizures happen regularly over weeks or months throughout the life of the dog if treatment is not given. This condition is more common in some breeds of dog, such as Border Collies and Labrador Retrievers. In older dogs, seizures are more commonly caused by brain tumours.

What happens during a typical dog seizure?

A seizure is caused by increased electrical activity in the brain, with nerves impulses being generated rapidly and repeatedly. This causes twitching (in the case of a partial seizure) or complete collapse with limbs flailing and loss of consciousness (with a generalised seizure) and often “autonomic” signs (e.g. salivation, vomiting, urination or defecation).

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Is a seizure painful or dangerous to the dog?

Dogs do not suffer pain or distress during a seizure, regardless of how loudly they may be whimpering and/or thrashing around, Animals are not conscious during a seizure, so they do not know what’s happening, nor do they have any memories about it. Adverse consequences from a fit are rare, and most fits pass quickly with the dog rapidly returning to normal afterwards.

The exception to this is the rare occurrence where a seizure continues for more than a few minutes: this type of long-lasting seizure is known as status epilepticus. If this is allowed to continue, there is a serious risk of permanent brain damage. This is an emergency: you need to get the seizuring dog to the vet as soon as possible, so that emergency drugs can be used to stop the seizure.

What should I do if my dog is having a seizure?

You should learn about the different actions needed at the various stages of a seizure and then you'll know what to do if and when the time comes.

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What should I do before my dog has a seizure?

There are a couple of stages that you might notice before your dog has a seizure:

The prodome: Sometimes owners may notice behavioural changes in the minutes, hours or even days before the seizure. Your dog may behave in an unusual way, not in keeping with their normal routine or habits.

The aura: This happens as the immediate prelude to a seizure. Humans say that they have a sense of a particular smell or a feeling of deja vu. Pets can’t tell us what they feel, but owners often say that their pets behave peculiarly and it seems likely that they are aware that something unusual is happening to them.

Owners do not need to do anything during these phases other than to ensure that their pet is in a safe place to have a seizure. Clear a space around them so that they cannot bash into anything around them, and make sure they are not near anywhere that they could fall down or off, such as a staircase.

What should I do while my dog is having a seizure?

This seizure itself is known as the ictus and, if the animal is not already in a safe place, you should use a towel wrapped around their body to pull them somewhere safe. Don't worry about the seizuring dog swallowing their tongue. This is highly unlikely to happen and you may be badly bitten, if you put your hand near a fitting dog’s mouth.

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What should I do after my dog has had a seizure?

This is known as the post-ictal period. This is the period immediately after the seizure, while the dog is recovering normal consciousness. Dogs may pace up and down, panting and confused. This may last seconds or minutes.

What is your dog likely to feel during a seizure?

Dogs are unconscious during a seizure, so they do not have any awareness of what is happening, although it's doubtless distressing for you to watch. The vocalising and thrashing around is unconscious. Dogs have no memory of what has happened afterwards.

Do I need to rush my dog to the vet when they have a seizure?

When a dog has a seizure for the first time, you should call a vet at once. The vet will tell you what to do over the phone. Also, if you can take a video of the seizure, it can be helpful to show the vet later. Once the pet has come around from the seizure, take them to the vet as soon as possible.

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What will the vet do if a dog has had a seizure?

The vet will carry out a physical examination and often a blood sample will be taken to check for underlying illnesses. Advanced imaging techniques (such as MRI scans) may be suggested to rule out a physical problem with the brain (such as brain tumours or scar tissue after head trauma). But in young adult dogs, where epilepsy is strongly suspected, MRI scans are not always done, as these are unlikely to show anything abnormal.

Sometimes other tests may be done, including an Electro Encephalogram (EEG) to see what type of electrical activity is going on in the brain, and sampling of cerebro spinal fluid (CSF) to check for abnormal cells that could indicate an unusual cause, like meningitis.

What treatment is needed for seizures in dogs?

Sometimes, after the initial fit, some dogs never have another one, and no treatment is needed. In other cases, a fit may start to happen regularly (e.g. more often than once every six weeks, or cluster seizures, where several happen one after another). In these cases, daily anticonvulsant tablets (such as potassium bromide or phenobarbitone) may be suggested to stop the seizures from recurring.