Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

Epilepsy in Dogs: A Manageable Disorder


Pet Column for the week of November 21, 2012

Related information:

Related site - Neurology Services at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Netherton
Information Specialist

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that refers to having recurrent seizures. Dr. Devon Hague, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, estimates that epilepsy afflicts up to 2 percent of the dog population.

According to Dr. Hague, who is trained in neurology, epilepsy in dogs is categorized in three ways. Primary epilepsy, also called genetic, is the most common form in both dogs and people. Patients with primary epilepsy are thought to be born with a decreased seizure threshold; in these patients the brain receives too much electrical activity, leading to seizures.

Secondary, or “structural” epilepsy is attributed to have an underlying cause, such as a stroke, brain tumor, encephalitis, or other trauma.

In the third type, termed idiopathic, the cause is unknown.

“Dogs afflicted with the idiopathic form of the disease typically start having seizures between 1 and 5 years of age and seem to be otherwise healthy,” says Dr. Hague.

Determining whether a pet is having a seizure can be difficult, since there are different types of seizures. A focal motor seizure affects only certain muscle groups with a repeating twitch. A generalized (or grand mal) seizure affects the entire body and can appear more dramatic.

Dr. Hague recommends that owners keep a log of their dog’s seizures and look for patterns and changes. She also recommends taking a video of the seizure activity to show to their veterinarian to help determine whether the event was a seizure.

Diagnostic tests for epilepsy include an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures the electrical activity in the brain to find abnormalities and confirms seizure activity. Other diagnostic tests may involve blood testing, imaging studies of the brain (such as an MRI), and analysis of cerebrospinal fluid for inflammation or infection.

Although there is no cure for this disease, epilepsy can be managed in most cases.

“In about two-thirds of dogs with primary epilepsy, the disease can be controlled with only one medication,” says Dr. Hague. “Owners should realize that this is a lifelong treatment plan. Most pets will always need the medication to control the seizures. This is similar to people with epilepsy.”

The remaining third of dogs with epilepsy may need more than one anti-seizure medication to help control their disease. These pets may benefit from a consultation with a veterinary neurologist, as seizures can be difficult to control.

Owners should be advised that even with medication, a dog with epilepsy is not usually going to be seizure free. Dr. Hague recommends that epileptic dogs be taken to their primary care veterinarian every 6 months for an exam and blood work to monitor the disease.

For more information about epilepsy in dogs, speak with your local veterinarian or ask for a referral to a veterinary specialist.