Veterinarian Reviewed on January 12, 2015 by Dr. Janice Huntingford
Signs and Symptoms
Canine epilepsy is a brain disorder that is, unfortunately, quite common. While not all seizures that dogs experience are caused by epilepsy, this disorder is characterized by recurrent, periodic seizures that can occur with or without convulsions. When these episodes occur, they can be extremely frightening and distressing to witness, especially when a pet owner does not understand what is happening to their dog. If your pet has experienced one or more seizures, be sure to contact your veterinarian. If epilepsy is left untreated, the seizures will likely become more frequent and more severe.
The signs and symptoms of seizures that can occur as a result of dog epilepsy can vary quite significantly. However, most seizures fall under one of two categories — grand mal seizures and petit mal seizures — and there are different characteristic signs and behaviors for each category. A petit mal seizure is a mild type of seizure where the brain’s electrical activity is somewhat disrupted. The canine patient still retains some control of movement but certain muscle groups act outside of the animal’s control. Since this type of seizure is often very non-obvious in dogs, pet owners may not even notice that the event is occurring. Behaviors may be as simple as staring into space or becoming dazed or disoriented for a short period of time. Sometimes dogs with petit mal seizures will appear to be chewing imaginary gum, will chase their tails, or will chew at their flanks. After a few seconds or a few minutes of such behaviors, the dog will return to normal.
In contrast to petit mal seizures, grand mal seizures are more severe and can be quite frightening to watch. This type of episode occurs in three stages, the first being the aura, which takes place prior to the seizure. This stage is characterized by anxiety and the dog may attempt to hide or seek out attention. The second phase is the ictal phase, which refers to the time in which the seizure is actually occurring. During this stage the dog experiences widespread cramping of muscles, convulses, and falls down. The dog loses consciousness and often paddles its legs. Urination and defecation may also occur at this point. Finally, the canine patient will begin to recover, entering the post-ictal phase, which is characterized by disorientation, confusion, and sometimes hunger and aggression. This recovery phase can last for hours or even days, and your pet may not seem like itself during this time.
If your pet suffers from a seizure for the first time, seek veterinary help. A professional will be able to determine whether the episode was caused by epilepsy or another medical condition. Once the underlying trigger has been identified, an appropriate treatment plan can be developed. Prompt diagnosis and treatment in the case of canine epilepsy will help to prevent the disorder from becoming worse and will greatly improve your pet’s quality of life.
Any dog that experiences a seizure should be examined by veterinarian so that the canine’s health can be assessed and the cause of the seizure or seizures can be identified. The first thing that a practitioner will do is to conduct a thorough physical examination of the dog, paying particular attention to the patient’s heart and assessing neurological signs. At this point, the veterinary doctor will want to know the details of the behaviors and episodes you have observed at home. This will help the doctor to determine what is going on with your pet. If epilepsy is indeed at the source of your dog’s seizures, it’s likely that the physical exam will not turn up any anomalies, as a dog with this neurological disorder is often healthy in every other way. However, this step can be of great help with respect to ruling out other potential causes of the seizures.
In order to diagnose canine epilepsy, a number of different tests will likely be conducted. Once again, many of these tests are geared toward ruling out medical conditions other than epilepsy that could be causing seizures. Blood tests and urinalysis are two of the most common tests performed under such circumstances. Other diagnostic tests that a veterinarian might employ include fecal examination, cerebrospinal fluid analysis, electroencephalogram (EEG), electrocardiogram (EKG), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and analysis of the levels of various substances such as blood glucose, BUN, ALT, and ALP. If all the tests performed come back normal and the episodes described by you, the pet owner, suggest canine epilepsy, a veterinarian will likely reach a diagnosis of this neurological disorder.
Finding out that your dog has epilepsy can be very scary and distressing. Having a basic understanding of this disorder can take away some of the fear and confusion that accompanies such a diagnosis and will also help you to provide your pet with the best care possible. As mentioned previously, epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by periodic, recurrent seizures. When a dog has this disease, its brain undergoes abnormal electrical activity which interferes with the proper transmission of signals from the brain to other parts of the dog’s body. Neurons (nerve cells) in the brain become overly excited by this electrical activity and begin firing in an uncontrolled manner. Scrambled and unregulated messages are then sent to the dog’s voluntary muscles, causing an inhibition of coordinated muscle movement. The result of such activity is a seizure.
Seizures most frequently affect animals during the night or while they are at rest. While dogs can experience a single seizure once in their life and then never again, epilepsy involves repeated seizures. If left untreated, seizures caused by epilepsy tend to become more frequent and more severe, as more and more of the brain becomes affected by the disease. Seizures are a very complicated phenomenon and are not all the same. These episodes of abnormal electrical activity in the brain are often categorized according to a variety of factors such as whether or not the seizures are accompanied by convulsions, how much of the brain is involved, the structural cause of the seizure, and how the patient responds to treatment. One of the most common ways to categorize seizures has to do with whether or not convulsions are involved. Seizures accompanied by convulsions are called grand mal seizures, and these episodes are more forceful and severe than petit mal seizures, which occur without convulsions.
Canine epilepsy can be divided into three different types according to the structural cause of the disease — primary epilepsy, secondary epilepsy, and reactive epilepsy. Primary epilepsy is usually inherited and is also sometimes referred to as idiopathic epilepsy. Idiopathic means that the cause is unknown and a dog with this type of epilepsy has no problems or abnormalities within its brain. Everything, including the brain and nerves, works properly except when a seizure is actually occurring and, therefore, there is no apparent cause. As a result, it’s thought that this type of epilepsy is genetic and stems from a problem with the dog’s DNA. This means that this form of the neurological disorder can be inherited and certain breeds tend to be affected by epilepsy more than others. Some such breeds include beagles, Irish setters, collies, golden retrievers, poodles, and Yorkshire terriers.
As opposed to primary epilepsy, secondary epilepsy is caused by a problem with the anatomy or physiology of the dog’s brain. This can include structural or chemical abnormalities caused by a brain tumor, stroke, aneurysm, brain infection, or toxins. This form of the disease is also different from primary epilepsy in the sense that problems with the dog’s nervous system are obvious and detectable even when the animal is not experiencing a seizure. Yet another type of this neurological disorder is reactive epilepsy. This form of epilepsy is caused by a problem existing outside of the brain. Thus, the brain is reacting to a specific condition. Some conditions that can trigger seizures in this manner include cancer, infections, heart disease, and low blood sugar. As a result, the cause of a dog’s epilepsy can be internal to the brain, stem from another part of the body, or be unknown.
The treatment necessary for a dog with epilepsy will depend upon the type and severity of the disorder. For instance, in the case of secondary or reactive epilepsy, treatment of the underlying cause will be necessary in addition to dealing with the seizures. Some dogs, especially those that experience frequent and/or severe seizures, will require anti-seizure medication. There are a variety of different anti-seizure drugs available, and most dogs that are given such medications will need to keep taking them for the rest of their lives. However, not all dogs will need such medications, and even for those who do there are a number of other forms of treatment that can greatly benefit a dog suffering from canine epilepsy.
Two important steps in the treatment of canine epilepsy are strengthening the dog’s brain and liver. By strengthening the brain, nerve cells and neurotransmitters will become healthier, leading to fewer seizures. Supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are particularly helpful in this respect, as they improve brain cell membranes. The health of an epileptic dog’s liver is also incredibly important, as this organ cleanses the blood of toxins and controls the levels of many substances in the blood, including glucose and proteins. The stronger the animal’s liver, the healthier its blood and brain will be. In order to promote the health of a dog’s liver, it’s important to avoid chemicals, dyes, and other potential toxins. In addition, homeopathic supplements such as those that contain milk thistle help to boost and maintain liver health.
Finally, if your dog has epilepsy, it’s important to provide him or her with a stable environment. By minimizing stressors and changes to the daily routine, including dietary changes, you will be helping to reduce the tendency for your pet to experience seizures. By consulting with a veterinarian to develop the best treatment plan for your individual pet, you’ll be greatly increasing your canine companion’s well being and quality of life.
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan