Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Seizures can be upsetting to watch but are usually over quickly. A pet that has had a seizure for the first time should see a veterinarian. Seizures that last longer than 5 minutes or that happen in clusters (2 or more seizures in a day) are medical emergencies.
What Is a Seizure?
Seizures are involuntary movements caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. How a seizure looks depends on the type of seizure.
Is It a Seizure?
Some other conditions can look like seizures. Heart disease can cause fainting spells that look very similar to seizures. Other nervous system disorders, orthopedic problems, pain responses, trembling, and even extreme itching can mimic seizures.
If your pet has an episode of unusual movement or behavior, you don’t have to decide whether it was a seizure. Take your pet to a veterinarian and be prepared to describe the episode in as much detail as possible. A video can be very helpful. The veterinarian will ask how long the episode lasted, what your pet did (paddling the legs, urinating, etc), and whether your pet had access to toxins or medications before the episode. Your veterinarian will also need to know if your pet has had seizures before and if so, your pet’s age at the first seizure.
A true seizure is followed by a period of disorientation or other unusual behavior. Watch for this phase and tell your veterinarian if you see it. True seizures also begin with an aura phase (nervousness, seeking attention), but pet owners don’t often witness this phase.
Causes of Seizures
The many possible causes of seizures can be classified as things outside the brain (problems elsewhere in the body that affect brain function), things inside the brain (structural problems with the brain itself), or epilepsy.
Primary epilepsy is the most common diagnosis in dogs that start having seizures between the ages of about 6 months and 6 years. It is genetic in some breeds but can happen in dogs of any breed. Primary epilepsy is uncommon in cats. Dogs with primary epilepsy seem normal between seizures. Not being normal between seizures could be a sign that the seizure is caused by something else.
Veterinarians perform diagnostic tests to look for the cause of the seizure and rule out other conditions that mimic seizures. Primary epilepsy is diagnosed by not finding another cause for the seizure. Your veterinarian might recommend referring your pet to a veterinary neurologist.
What to Do if Your Pet Has a Seizure
Treatment depends on the cause of the seizure. Dogs with epilepsy generally have repeat seizures, and the choice of medication depends on the frequency and severity of the seizures. Epilepsy is a lifelong condition that can be managed but can’t be cured, so dogs with epilepsy usually need medication for life. Whatever the cause of the seizure, work in partnership with your veterinarian to develop your pet’s treatment plan. Anticonvulsant medication has specific dosage requirements, so don’t change the dose or timing of your pet’s medication without consulting your veterinarian.
Photo by Anne Dudek
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM