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When Epilepsy Strikes: Signs and Treatments for Dogs

Pet Column for the week of February 10, 1997

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

"Epilepsy is a condition that can affect any breed of dog," says Dr. Alistair McVey,
veterinarian and neurologist formerly at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at
Urbana. "However, there is a higher incidence in pure breed dogs of any size than in mixed
breed dogs, and is therefore likely to be inherited."

The main sign of epilepsy is seizures, which can be categorized in three ways. Intracranial
causes of seizures have detectable defects, such as a tumor, inside the brain. Extracranial
causes of seizures have metabolic or toxic changes that are outside the brain but affect the
brain to cause a seizure. Seizures of unknown cause form the third category, called
idiopathic epilepsy.

"Seizures in a dog less than one year of age are likely to be caused by congenital/genetic
problems, infections, or toxins," says Dr. McVey. "A dog greater than six years old is likely
to have tumors or infectious/inflammatory problems that are causing the seizures. Dogs
between 1 and 5 years of age that are normal between seizure episodes are most likely to
have idiopathic epilepsy."

Epilepsy is a functional abnormality in a neuron that causes an abnormal neurologic
excitation that generalizes to the whole brain. It is similar to a lightning strike on a house that
sends abnormal current through the normal electrical system.

Recognizing a seizure is important and often difficult. A seizure can be minor and show as
only slight loss of muscle control (called a partial motor seizure), or it can be severe, with
the dog paddling on the ground completely out of control (called a grand mal seizure). In
general, a dog will lose bladder and bowel control during a seizure, will be unaware of its
surroundings, and will appear abnormal after a seizure. If you are unsure if your dog is
having a seizure, Dr. McVey recommends videotaping a suspected episode and showing it
to your local veterinarian.

"Treatment for epilepsy does not cure dogs of the disease," says Dr. McVey. "Instead, the
goal is to control the seizures. Left untreated, this disease and its signs will continue to

"The first line of treatment for epilepsy is a barbiturate, usually phenobarbital," he says. "This
drug has anti-seizuring effects and can be used to treat dogs over the long term. The general
goal of therapy is either to reduce the number of seizures by half or to double the time
between seizures. This goal does depend somewhat on the individual case."

The second-line drug that is used in the treatment of epilepsy is potassium bromide. This
drug does not have FDA approval and is available to treat seizures in dogs by special
license only. The University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital has this

It is important to note that an epileptic dog can live a normal life with proper treatment but
usually will not live quite as long as a normal dog. If you would like further information,
contact your local veterinarian.