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Epilepsy in Dogs

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Few things can be more traumatic for a pet parent than watching their canine friend experience a seizure. The feeling of helplessness can seem almost overwhelming.

While seizures are a complicated medical issue, it's helpful to remember that there are several possible ways for them to be managed or treated. Also, a little education about what causes dogs to have seizures might help ease these feelings of helplessness. After all, a knowledgeable pet parent is an empowered pet parent. Here are some insights into seizures, why they happen, how they're diagnosed, and treatment options.

Seizures: Brain-circuit Overload

So, why do dogs have seizures? The first thing to know is that seizures are basically an outward symptom of the primary medical issue. Just like dog slobber is the outward indication of your pup wanting to eat that treat in your hand, a seizure is an indication that something is affecting the way your pet pal's "wiring" is working.

That something could be any number of medical issues, from tumors to the ingestion of toxic chemicals to an inherited genetic trait. Whatever the issue, it causes the electrical pathways in the brain to misfire en masse. This uncontrolled misfiring can happen in a small area of the brain or across the entire brain. The result is a seizure. But, depending on where the misfiring is occurring, the seizure can be as subtle as face twitching or as obvious as full-body convulsions. If the seizures occur repeatedly, they're classified as epilepsy.

Two Types of Epilepsy

There are two main types of epilepsy: symptomatic and idiopathic. The designations have nothing to do with the seizures themselves. Instead, they refer to what's known about the issue causing the seizures. Here's the quick breakdown:

  • Symptomatic epilepsy: Also called "secondary epilepsy," it is the designation given to seizures resulting from a known disease process or brain trauma. Seizures that are a result of a brain tumor or ingested toxin would fall into this category.
  • Idiopathic epilepsy: This designation is also called primary epilepsy and is given to seizures where the cause is essentially unknown–medical issues like an inherited condition, or some trauma, like a stroke, that can't be detected during diagnosis.

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The Anatomy of a Seizure

The terms symptomatic and idiopathic refer to the known or unknown causes of epilepsy. But those terms don't describe the seizures themselves. To better classify types of seizures in dogs, they are further broken down into additional categories. The seizures commonly seen in dogs are grand mal and focal seizures.

Grand Mal Seizures

These seizures are also called "generalized" seizures because they happen across multiple regions of the brain at once. These seizures have three distinct phases. The first phase is called the aura. During the aura, your pooch has not yet started to seize, but they may be showing signs that something is wrong. They might seek you out or find a place to hide. They may whine or seem strangely absent.

After the aura phase, the seizure will usually begin. During a grand mal seizure, your pet might fall to their side with legs outstretched. At this point, they've lost consciousness, and while the seizure may look painful, know that your pup is not suffering. That's particularly hard to keep in mind considering a seizure may also be accompanied by face twitching and vocalizations.

It's also important to understand that the loss of consciousness may be combined with the loss of bowel and bladder control. Other troubling seizure signs may include rhythmic movements, a blue tongue, and the baring and chomping of teeth.

Pet parents need to understand that the average seizure lasts no longer than two minutes. That will seem like an eternity. But a seizure doesn't truly become an emergency until it passes the two-minute mark.

Once the seizure ends, your pup will enter into what's called the postictal phase. They may appear groggy or dizzy. They may lay motionless for a while before getting up. Walking might appear difficult, and your pooch might bump into walls or furniture. Often postictal pups will be very hungry and eat anything they can. This phase can last up to a couple of hours before your buddy seems normal again.

Focal Seizures

These seizures are called "focal" because they are focused in localized regions of the brain. A pup experiencing a focal seizure will probably have the extreme jerky movements associated with a grand mal seizure. Instead of affecting the entire body, focal seizures affect certain body parts or functions based on where in the brain the activity is happening.

A pet having a focal seizure might have strange jerking motions in their head or twitchy face muscles. They might have trouble walking or moving and look concerned and confused. This activity will generally affect just one side of the body.

Sometimes the seizure will appear mild and stop. Other times, the seizure activity can spread to the rest of the brain and cause a grand mal seizure.

Other Varieties of Seizures

The previous descriptions are what grand mal and focal seizures will normally look like in many pups. But because the misfiring is so chaotic and unpredictable, a seizure can have many other appearances.

In some cases, a pup might drop to the ground without the repeated shaking. Sometimes a dog might not show any aura phase before the seizure hits. In other cases, the postictal phase can last up to two days without any significant improvement.

In what are called "complex" focal seizures, the misfiring might occur in the part of the brain related to behavior. This can result in bizarre repetitive behaviors, uncontrolled running or even temporary changes in temperament. These complex focal seizures can happen and resolve very quickly, making them hard to diagnose.

Some Things that Look Like Seizures

Pet parents who are hyper-aware of their four-legged friends might mistake some common behaviors or other health issues for seizures. Here are a few things that might look a bit like seizures but have different causes that can be harmless or require a veterinary visit.

  • Inner ear problems: Issues with a pup's inner ear can affect their balance, sometimes significantly. These issues can be serious enough to cause sudden falling, which could look like the beginning of a grand mal seizure.
  • Cardiac or respiratory problems: Like inner ear problems, problems with your pet's cardiovascular system can also lead to abrupt falling.
  • Reverse sneezing: This fairly common phenomenon is characterized by long repedated inhalations accompanied by a loud snorting noise and an outstretched neck. It occurs most often with pups that have squished faces, like pugs and boxers. Reverse sneezing is harmless, and no one knows why it happens.
  • "Chasing rabbits": Often, pooches, particularly puppies, will twitch their legs and make soft vocalizations in their sleep. Many people think that these are associated with dreams about chasing rabbits or running through giant grassy fields. But there's no evidence that this is the case. Either way, these sleep disturbances can look very seizure-like. But if you can easily wake your pet from the dream, they are not having a seizure. That's true for any time your dog appears alert and responsive.

red cocker spaniel resting on the floor next to a gray sofa

Diagnosing Seizures

Unless your pet friend has a seizure while in the veterinarian's office, it will be difficult for your practitioner to diagnose epilepsy right away. The direction your pet's vet will take for diagnosis and treatment will largely rely on the reports you give them about your pup's seizure activity.

To help that process, provide your veterinarian with a detailed description of what the seizure activity looks like. That might be particularly difficult, but it is important. It might help to take a moment or two after the seizure to take some deep breaths and collect your thoughts. When you're ready, write down what happened in as much detail as possible. Or, if you have a smartphone, you can also take a video of the seizure to show your veterinarian.

Based on your report, and after a thorough physical examination, your dog-doc will look at several different diagnosis options:

Blood and urine tests

Samples of blood and urine will rule out toxins or poisons that can commonly cause seizures. They can also help a veterinarian rule out issues like infection and electrolyte imbalance and other health issues related to the kidneys or liver that could affect brain chemistry.

Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) sampling

Looking at CSF requires a procedure known as a spinal tap. It is administered under general anesthesia. Looking at changes in CSF's makeup and pressure can lead to indications of larger central nervous system issues. While your pet is under anesthesia, their practitioner will insert a needle into the spine. This needle will have a pressure gauge to test for abnormalities. The veterinarian will then draw fluid from the spine and test it for blood cell and protein content.


While your pup is under anesthesia and motionless, it's possible your pet's practitioner may suggest an MRI. An MRI will help get a detailed look at your pup's brain to reveal any possible damage. However, an MRI cannot detect idiopathic epilepsy, particularly if there is a genetically inherited reason for the seizures. Also, it's unlikely that MRI equipment will be found at most general veterinarian clinics.


Electroencephalograms (EEGs) look at the brain's electrical activity by using non-invasive electrodes applied to your pup's head. Your pooch may not even need to be put under anesthesia for an EEG to be done. Again, an EEG is rarely available outside of larger veterinarian hospitals and requires a specialist to interpret the data correctly.

Unfortunately, many of these diagnostic procedures can become rather expensive, especially if your dog requires multiple tests. One financial option to consider is pet insurance. For instance, if you've purchased an ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan, you may receive assistance for covering the costs of epilepsy diagnostic testing and treatment, as well as the costs of many other veterinary services.

Treating Canine Epilepsy

There are two main paths of treatment for a pooch with epilepsy, but it's important to know that there could be lingering damage from the seizure that will require lifelong treatment. It is almost safer to say that epilepsy is rarely cured but can often be successfully managed, particularly in idiopathic epilepsy cases.


In cases where epilepsy may be related to a disease process that has damaged the brain–like a blood clot or a tumor–surgery may be enough to repair the damage and limit (if not cure) the seizures. However, even after surgery, seizures may continue if the damage to the brain was significant.


There are a variety of antiepileptic medications approved for dogs. Some you've likely heard of include phenobarbital and Valium. These drugs work to restore balance to the brain's electrical activity. And while medications may limit seizures, there's still the possibility that they may happen on occasion.

Antiepileptic drugs, in general, have mild side effects, like an upset tummy or drowsiness. They often come in pill and liquid form. If your dog refuses to take medication, here are some tips and tricks to giving your dog a pill.

If you have started an antiepileptic medication, it is crucial not to discontinue it without being advised or guided by a veterinarian. Suddenly stopping a medication can cause seizures to worsen and even lead to a constant state of seizing, which can quickly become an emergency.

It's also important to know that a pooch with a seizure condition should still be encouraged to lead a happy, active life. Epilepsy should not keep you and your four-legged friend from romps in the park and road trips. Continue having all of the fun you're used to enjoying. Treatment is often enough to ensure a relatively normal life for most canine companions.

If Your Dog Has a Seizure

We definitely understand how witnessing your four-legged friend having a seizure can be very traumatic for pet parents. That said, it's not helpful to panic. Try staying as collected and calm as possible. The best thing you'll be able to do for your pet is to observe as many details as possible to help your veterinarian with a diagnosis. You can also talk to your pup in soothing tones as they come out of their seizure. They will likely be a little dazed, and some extra TLC will help.

Never put anything in your dog's mouth if they begin having a seizure. They will not choke on their tongue. In fact, it is possible they could injure you if you try, or worse, choke on the object you've put in their mouth. Some vocalizations can possibly sound like choking but, again, nothing should ever be placed in their mouth.

In most seizures, there is no need to call emergency veterinarian services or seek immediate help. However, on rare occasions, a seizure may last beyond three minutes. Only at this point does a seizure become life- threatening. In the case of these abnormally long seizures or several seizures in a row, it is important to find immediate care to prevent lasting brain damage.

However, these cases are rare. For most dogs, with proper care and management of seizures, you can look forward to a life filled with the same kind of joy and activity you and your pet friend have come to enjoy.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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