Canine Epilepsy: Types, Causes and Treatment

Suddenly your dog falls to the floor, twitching and is unable to control his movements, his paws shake and he has a faraway look in his eyes. A few seconds later, he gets up and seems shaken, but then appears fine. Your dog may have just had one example of an epilepsy attack.

It’s been estimated that up to six percent of dogs in the world have epilepsy, which acts the same way in canines as it does in humans who are afflicted with it.

Epilepsy is a neurological disease of the brain that causes uncontrolled, recurring seizures. Essentially, the neurons in the brain aren’t working properly, so the nerves in the brain send a scrambled signal to your dog’s body and it can’t work properly and seizures happen. Epilepsy also involves an improper balance of the chemicals that make the neurotransmitters in a dog’s brain function.

Types of Epilepsy

There are three types of epilepsy

  • Idiopathic or Primary Epilepsy— Idiopathic or primary epilepsy appears in about three percent of the cases of canine epilepsy and makes up 80 percent of the seizures. It usually shows up in a dog at somewhere between about six months and five years of age. It is usually inherited and some breeds are more prone to it than others such as beagles, Irish setters, collies, golden retrievers, poodles, dachshund, German Shepherd, Belgian Tervueren and Yorkshire terriers.
  • Secondary Epilepsy – This kind is caused by chemical or physical abnormalities of the dog’s brain, which may have been caused by an injury or disease. It’s different from primary epilepsy because you can tell the dog has some sort of problem, even if he isn’t in the midst of a seizure.
  • Reactive epilepsy — This kind of epilepsy is due to a problem caused by a condition the dog has such as cancer, infection, heart disease or low blood sugar. This type would have to be treated by treating these underlying conditions.

Types of Seizures

There are several types of epileptic seizures:

  • General Seizure: This type can be manifest as mild all the way up to the Grand Mal type attack. If your dog suffers the worse type, he will fall to the ground, lose consciousness and have rigid legs. He may even stop breathing. This part of the seizure lasts about 10 to 30 seconds.

The next part of the seizure is called the clonic phase and that’s when the uncontrolled movements of pawing the air, chewing motions, dilated pupils, or even uncontrolled urination, and defecation.

If your dog is having a mild seizure, he won’t lose consciousness or get rigid limbs, but he may still suffer twitching and uncontrolled motions.

  • Petit Mal: This kind is rare in dogs, but if they are confirmed to occur, they involve signs such as unconsciousness, loss of muscle tone, blank stare, and eye rotation and only last a few seconds.
  • Partial Seizures: These seizures usually happen on just one side of the dog’s body. It may looks as mild as a facial twitch, or involves muscle jerking, moving on leg, or other twitching movements.
  • Complex Partial Seizures: These seizures involved things in animals such as chewing, smacking, biting the air or body, aggression, vomiting, hysterical running, hiding or cowering, as well as vomiting, diarrhea or stomach issues. These strange symptoms could last for several hours, and then the dog might even get an additional seizure.
  • Cluster Seizures: A dog gets several seizures in a row and close together.
  • Status Epilepticus: One long seizure that lasts 30 minutes or longer. This can be a life-threatening type of attack and is usually only seen in dogs with a brain injury, not the inherited type of epilepsy.
  • The important thing to note is that while your dog is experiencing a seizure, all you can do is try to stay calm and make sure there is nothing in the area he can get hurt on.

Stages of a Seizure

There are four stages of an epileptic seizure that can be documented: prodome, aura or preictus, ictus or seizure stage, and the postictus.

  • Prodome – This can happen a few hours before a seizure happen. A dog may act strangely or out of character. Humans too have this occur before they have a seizure and get headaches or a change in mood.
  • Aura – This is the start of the actual seizure and includes symptoms of restlessness, nervousness, whining, trembling, salivation, affection, wandering, hiding, hysterical running, and apprehension.
  • Ictus– This is the seizure itself and it manifests depending on the type of seizure, lasting anywhere from a few second to several minutes or longer.
  • Post ictus – This is after the seizure is over. A dog may act tired, confused, restless, etc when it ends. A dog will be conscious, but really is still not himself. An owner needs to make sure the dog is in a safe place and there isn’t anything around that he can get hurt with or on.

Diagnosing Epilepsy

If your dog has a seizure, it may or may not be epilepsy. Your veterinarian will start tests and get some basic medical history on your pet and you will be asked to describe exactly how the seizures manifest. A dog will have blood, urine, and fecal testing done to rule out any other underlying conditions.

Other tests that could be done include MRI, X-rays of a dog’s skull, and an EEG.

What Treatment is Available?

Dogs that have more than one seizure a month are usually medically treated for epilepsy. Proper administration of any medications prescribed by your veterinarian have to be given in precisely the right levels, times, etc or it could make it worse.

The most common drugs prescribed are Phenobarbital and primidone, which are a type of anticonvulsant medication. Dogs that take these drugs must be monitored for any problems resulting from taking them such as impaired liver functions, which is a possible side effect.

A new drug that is becoming popular for difficult to control epilepsy in dogs is potassium bromide, which is also used in humans. It is also used in dogs that have liver problems. If a dog has kidney problems, the drug used is sodium bromide. These two drugs are also sometimes combined with Phenobarbital and primidone if needed.

Alternative Treatment for Epilepsy & Seizures

Some people treat their dogs with other things besides the traditional medications. These therapies include things like acupuncture, and vitamins like Vitamin B6, magnesium and manganese.

Whatever treatment is used, it won’t cure your dog’s epilepsy, but it should help to decrease the amount of seizures. As long as your dog’s epilepsy can be controlled, he can still live a fairly normal life, you just must be diligent about his treatment so you can enjoy your best friend for several years to come.


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