Epilepsy in dogs

Epilepsy is the most common cause of recurrent seizures in dogs. Around 1 in 100 dogs in the UK will have a fit at some time in their lives. Although dogs of any age, sex or breed can have a seizure, epilepsy is most common in young adult dogs and in certain breeds, including Pugs, French Bulldogs Belgian Shepherd dogs, Border collies and Labradors. Severity, treatment and outlook depend on the cause of your dog’s epilepsy. 

Seizures happen when there’s an uncontrolled flare of electrical activity in your dog’s brain. Seizures look scary, but they’re not painful, and they usually only last a minute or two. However, your dog may seem sleepy and out of sorts for several hours afterwards. Seizures are exhausting. They can damage both the body and the brain if they last too long or happen multiple times in a short period of time. There’s no cure for epilepsy. However, with veterinary care and daily medication to prevent seizures, most dogs continue to enjoy a full and active life at home.



What is epilepsy in dogs?

Epilepsy in dogs is caused by an abnormality of the brain.

This abnormality causes seizures, which may be general (whole body) or partial. Not all dogs who have an unexplained fit have epilepsy. Dogs may have a single seizure and never have another in their lifetime.

There are three types of epilepsy in dogs:

Idiopathic Epilepsy

  • The most common form of epilepsy and the most common cause of repeated fits or seizures in dogs between 1 and 6 years old
  • Causes seizures without structural changes in the brain or an obvious cause
  • Is an inherited (genetic) disease in dogs

Structural Epilepsy

  • Seizures where there is damage to the structure of the brain
  • Causes of damage include head trauma, inflammation of the brain, a stroke, a brain tumour or a birth defect

Epilepsy of unknown cause

  • A structural cause is suspected but not identified with testing



Symptoms of epilepsy in dogs

Symptoms of a full body (complete or generalised) seizure

  • Becoming unsteady, losing balance
  • Falling over, with stiffened muscles
  • Becoming vacant or unconscious
  • Lying on one side and jerking their limbs
  • Drooling saliva
  • Making chomping and biting movements
  • Passing faeces (poo) or urine (wee) without being aware of it

Symptoms of a partial (or focal) seizure

  • Muscle twitches
  • ‘Vacant’ episodes: staring into space
  • Weakness on one side of the body

Seizures usually only last for a minute or two. Prolonged seizures are dangerous, causing exhaustion and brain damage.

Call your nearest vet immediately if your dog’s seizure has been going on for longer than 5 minutes.

Call and speak to a Joii vet at any time for support and advice if your dog has had a seizure.

For a period of minutes to hours after the seizure, your dog may appear:

  • Disorientated
  • Wobbly on their legs
  • Very hungry
  • Very sleepy

This is known as the post-ictal phase. Ictus is another name for a seizure. It’s best to leave your pet to recover safely and peacefully in their familiar surroundings until this passes.

There can be many other symptoms of full or partial seizures.



Are some dogs more at risk of Epilepsy than others?

Whilst all dogs may be at risk of seizures, certain breeds are more likely to develop idiopathic epilepsy, according to the Kennel Club.

The breeds most commonly affected include:

  • Pugs
  • Boxers
  • French Bulldogs and Bulldogs
  • Belgian Shepherd Dogs
  • Border Terriers
  • Staffordshire Bull Terriers
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Jack Russell Terriers
  • Yorkshire Terriers

The reason for this increased risk is unknown, but it may be due to a faulty gene.


Is my family at risk of epilepsy?

Epilepsy results from an abnormality in the brain of an individual dog.

It won’t spread between dogs, or from dogs to their owners and other pets in the household.



Diagnosis of epilepsy in dogs

There isn’t a single test for epilepsy

Vets gather information and use the following tests to find the cause of seizures:

  • History: your account of what happened and your dog’s general health
  • General and neurological examination: checking things like balance and eyesight
  • Blood and urine tests to check for liver or kidney disease, low blood sugar or abnormal electrolyte (salt) levels. All of these can cause seizures. Finding a cause like this means the seizure is not idiopathic epilepsy.
  • MRI or CT scans: vets may recommend a closer examination of your dog’s brain using advanced tests to check the brain’s structure.
  • Tests on samples of fluid taken from around the brain, called the cerebrospinal fluid or CSF.

These tests may reveal a cause of structural epilepsy.

Idiopathic epilepsy is diagnosed when dogs have repeated seizures and tests fail to identify a cause.


Vet treatment

How do vets treat epilepsy in dogs?

The good news is that most dogs who experience seizures due to epilepsy can go on to live full and active lives. Although the disease cannot be cured, with the right medication and veterinary care, you and your canine best friend can continue to do all the things you enjoy together.

In emergencies, vets inject sedatives and anti-seizure medicine directly into your dog’s veins to control seizures. An emergency is a seizure which lasts more than 5 minutes or happens repeatedly in a short period of time.


Vet treatments for epilepsy at home

Longer-term treatment for idiopathic epilepsy includes:

  • Anti-seizure medicine given daily as tablets or liquid
  • Emergency medication for ‘at home’ treatment of seizures lasting more than 3 minutes

Medicine by mouth for epilepsy:

First line choices:

  • Phenobarbitone
  • Potassium Bromide
  • Imepitoin

Additional medication is prescribed if your dog’s seizures aren’t controlled well enough by the above:

  • Levetiracetam
  • Zonisamide
  • Gabapentin

Emergency treatment at home

If your dog has epilepsy, your vet may give you medicine to use at home to control seizures which go on too long.

  • Rectal Diazepam: given into your dog’s bottom for rapid effect

Ongoing Vet Care

Medication for epilepsy can have side effects. If your dog is being treated for epilepsy, they will need to see a vet for regular check-ups. This should be at least every 6 months.

Regular check-ups include:

Finding out how your dog has been since the previous check-up:

  • Identifying frequency of seizures and any changes in general health

Physical examination

Blood tests:

  • Checking levels of phenobarbitone
  • Checking for evidence of liver damage or other health concerns


Home treatment

How to look after a dog with Epilepsy at home

What to do if you think your dog is having an epileptic seizure

  • Stay calm
  • Turn down the lights
  • Keep the room quiet
  • Try not to touch your dog during the seizure
  • Remove children and other pets from the room
  • Keep your dog safe from injuring themselves

Call your nearest vet if your dog’s seizure is lasting more than 5 minutes.

Speak to a vet if your dog has more than one seizure in a day.


Caring for your dog on epilepsy medicine

  • Give prescribed medication from your vet at the right time and the prescribed dose.
  • Don’t give supplements or herbal remedies without consulting a vet. Even herbal treatments can have side effects.
  • Prioritise regular check-ups with a vet.
  • Keep to the same diet or consult a vet if changing your dog’s usual diet. Changes in diet can alter the effects of medication.

Tips for living with your dog’s epilepsy

How can you tell if an epileptic seizure is about to happen?

Some pets with epilepsy show changes in behaviour in the time leading up to a seizure.

This is called the pre-ictal phase or aura and may happen up to an hour before the seizure itself.

During an aura your pet may be:

  • Restless and pacing
  • Whining
  • Very clingy.

You may learn to recognise these cues in your dog and be able to create a safe environment.

For example:

  • Turning down the lights
  • Turning off the television or music
  • Turning off the heating – pets can overheat during seizures
  • Covering hard corners and edges of furniture with cushions
  • Taking other pets and children to a different room

These steps will reduce stimulation of your pet’s brain and this helps to reduce the electrical stimulation feeding into the seizure.

If seizures happen regularly, your vet may prescribe a sedative medication to give into your pet’s mouth or bottom. This medicine may be used either:

  • to control a seizure lasting longer than 3-5 minutes, or
  • to reduce the severity of a seizure (or prevent it completely) if an aura allows you to recognise when a seizure is about to happen.



How can I prevent epilepsy?

Idiopathic epilepsy can’t be prevented or cured

But some things may increase the risk your dog with epilsepsy will have a seizure, including:

  • Stress: visitors, changing routine, changing lifestyle
  • Sleep-deprivation
  • Weather: especially hot weather risking heatstroke
  • Hormone changes: female dogs having seasons, male dogs exposed to female dogs in season
  • Diet changes

Understanding how these factors affect your dog can help with managing their epilepsy.


When to worry

When should you be worried about your dog with Epilepsy?

Call your nearest vet if:

  • your dog’s seizure is lasting more than 5 minutes
  • Your dog has collapsed
  • Your dog has had more than one seizure in 24 hours

Joii can help with advice on:

  • Understanding epilepsy
  • Recognising the signs of a seizure
  • Keeping your pet safe during a seizure
  • Your pet’s recovery from a seizure
  • Investigating causes of seizures
  • What to do if you think your dog is having a seizure
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