Navigating the Unknown: Seizures in Pets

Labrador retreiver

Most pet owners watch their pets carefully and have no trouble deciding when an emergency trip to the vet is in order. But what is the best action to take if your pet has a seizure?

Dr. Kari Foss, a veterinary neurologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, shares the ins and outs of what is happening during a pet’s seizure and advises owners on how to respond.

Dr. Kari Foss is a boarded veterinary neurologist who treats patients with seizures and other neurological disorders.

Is My Pet Having a Seizure?

First, you’ll need to know whether your pet is, in fact, having a seizure as opposed to other conditions. One example would be syncope, which is a temporary loss of consciousness caused by a drop in blood pressure and can easily be confused with a seizure.

“Seizures are more common when our pets are at rest, whereas syncope is more commonly associated with pet activity,” explains Dr. Foss.

Doctors categorize seizures into three phases: pre-ictal, ictal (active seizure), and post-ictal.

“The pre-ictal phase can be hard to identify,” shares Dr. Foss. “Signs for the pre-ictal phase may include whining, crying, wandering, and acting anxious.”

While these signs may be useful in identifying a seizure, the signs may be too subtle to notice. Additionally, some pets do not show pre-ictal signs.

Signs during a seizure may include urination, defecation, and hypersalivation. Many pets may also lose consciousness. Dr. Foss says seizures are typically self-limiting and last less than two minutes.

During the seizure, the best thing a pet owner can do is monitor their pet closely and prevent them from injuring themselves. Dr. Foss warns owners to not reach into or around their pet’s mouth; dogs cannot choke on their tongues during a seizure and the owner risks being inadvertently bitten!

After the seizure, a pet may stumble around and seem disoriented.

Are Seizures an Emergency?

Although it may be quite scary to you when your pet has a seizure, a seizure does not necessarily constitute an emergency. Most often pets will return to their normal state after the seizure.

In these cases, Dr. Foss recommends that you follow up with your primary care veterinarian. Your veterinarian may perform blood work and further testing to determine the cause of the seizure.

If your pet does not return to normal within a short period or your pet does not stop having seizures, you should take them to an emergency veterinarian as soon as possible.

“Seizures can occur at any age,” says Dr. Foss. “Possible causes include toxin ingestion, inflammation of the brain, birth defects, brain tumors, and idiopathic epilepsy.”

Idiopathic epilepsy is the condition of repeated seizures without an identified cause despite extensive testing (such as bloodwork, MRI, spinal fluid sampling, etc.). It is a major cause of recurrent seizures in dogs between 1 and 5 years of age.

Are Some Dog Breeds Genetically Predisposed to Seizures?

Certain breeds are more likely to have seizures. According to Dr. Foss, though, “anything with a brain is capable of having a seizure.”

She notes that research has identified a gene mutation associated with epilepsy (meaning the brain disorder that causes seizures) in the Lagotto Romagnolo and Belgian sheepdog.

Additionally, pedigree analysis indicates that a number of other breeds may have inherited epilepsy: German shepherds, Belgian tervurens, keeshonds, beagles, English springer spaniels, dachshunds, vizslas, Bernese mountain dogs, Irish wolfhounds, Finnish spitz, golden retrievers, standard poodles, and Labrador retrievers.

What If My Pet Needs Seizure Medication?

“If your pet has two or more seizures every 3 to 4 months, has cluster seizures (>2 seizures within 24 hours), or presents in status epilepticus (prolonged seizure activity), or has an underlying cause such as a brain tumor, your veterinarian will likely prescribe anti-seizure medications,” says Dr. Foss.

There are several kinds of these medications, and they differ in how often they must be given, their side effects, and how often the pet needs blood work to monitor the medication.

“There will be a very important conversation between the pet owner and the veterinarian whenever a pet is prescribed an anti-seizure medication,” notes Dr. Foss.

Dr. Foss says idiopathic epilepsy in dogs can usually be managed by a primary care veterinarian rather than requiring care from a specialist. The exceptions to this rule include status epilepticus and cluster seizures. If these happen, take your pet to an emergency veterinarian immediately.

Does My Pet Need to See a Neurologist?

In certain cases, the pet may eventually need to see a veterinary neurologist for further testing and management. When a patient does not respond well to medications despite appropriate doses, a veterinary neurologist may be needed.

As a specialist, Dr. Foss is interested in developing new imaging techniques to better understand epilepsy and other brain disorders at the cellular level. She notes that research on idiopathic epilepsy is important to gaining a better understanding of what is happening in these situations and how best to help the dogs that experience them.

By Sarah Brink

Photo by Ivan Louis on Unsplash