Understanding and responding to seizures.
Updated: Sep 30, 2019
It can be pretty scary to watch your beloved pet have a seizure. You feel helpless, out of control, and worried about what this means for their future. Fortunately, the majority of seizures are not life threatening and most dogs and cats respond very well to treatment.
A seizure occurs when abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes your pet to exhibit strange behavior, muscle spasms, or loss of consciousness. Seizures can look very different from mild episodes (absent staring, slight twitching, rigid limbs, yelping, or "fly biting") to more serious seizures that present with violent convulsing and loss of consciousness. Your pet may be unresponsive during a seizure and will likely urinate during or immediately after the event. It may take a while for them to return to normal following a seizure and might be lethargic, disoriented, and drooling. Seizures may occur as a one time only event, sporadic events that can increase in frequency and severity, or clusters of multiple seizures in a short time frame. A seizure can last anywhere from a few seconds up to several minutes. In severe cases a seizure that lasts for more than 5 minutes can cause permanent brain damage and even death.
There are two main categories for describing seizure causes: intra-cranial (caused by something inside the head) or extra-cranial (caused by an issue somewhere else in the body).
An extracranial seizure can be caused by a lot of different things including diabetes, liver disease, heat stroke, severe dehydration, abnormal electrolyte levels in the blood, toxins, kidney disease, or infectious disease. For this reason a full panel of bloodwork is the first step in understanding and diagnosing a seizure disorder. In many cases identifying an underlying cause allows for rapid treatment and almost no incidence of recurring seizures. However, if the seizures do persist then a further workup by a neurologist is necessary.
Intra-cranial causes of seizures include brain tumors, congenital defects, vascular abnormalities, and idiopathic epilepsy. Epilepsy is the most common cause in dogs with the onset of seizures beginning between the ages of 2 to 6. Unfortunately there is no cure for epilepsy, but the seizures can be medically managed to improve the patient's quality of life. Patients typically respond well to anti-seizure medication though determining which medication is best for your pet requires further investigation. Any dog taking anti-seizure medication must have their bloodwork evaluated once or twice a year to make sure the medication is at a therapeutic level and isn’t causing any negative side effects. Typically a seizure workup requires advanced imaging such as an MRI in order to identify intracranial lesions. In many cases a cerebrospinal fluid sample must be collected and evaluated for infectious or inflammatory diseases as well as confirmation of seizure activity.
Quick action is imperative to helping your pet during a seizure. Keep them (and others around) safe and comfortable, especially if they are violently thrashing. Contact your veterinarian immediately and bring them in as soon as possible for evaluation and treatment. Avoid transporting a seizing animal if possible and wait until the seizure has finished before moving them. Pay attention and write down as much information as you can about the event ie. the time it started, what happened during the event, how long it lasted, and how they were after the episode finished. This information will be extremely valuable to the medical team and your patient's overall care.