An in-depth look at epilepsy in dogs
Watching your dog have a fit is a scary experience. As well as experiencing shock and panic, owners can feel completely helpless as their pet struggles.
For owners of epileptic dogs this is something they must get used to and try to manage. Many dogs have the condition - it is believed to be more common in dogs than in humans.
Although epilepsy cannot be cured, it can be controlled. With the right treatment and management the number of seizures can be reduced, and dogs can lead active and happy lives.
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a brain disorder which causes seizures; these recur throughout a dog's life. Seizures are caused by sudden abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
The condition can be caused by scar tissue or trauma to the brain. In most cases though, the reasons are not known - this is called idiopathic epilepsy, and can occur in any breed and at any age. Some breeds do appear to be more susceptible. There is ongoing research into whether the condition is caused by genetics.
If your dog has a fit it does not necessarily mean he has epilepsy. There can be many underlying conditions or diseases that can cause a seizure. Once the vet has discovered what the problem is and it has been cured or controlled the fits will eventually stop. However, this is not the case with epilepsy, where there is always the risk seizures will recur.
What happens during a fit?
There are two main types of fits in dogs: a partial seizure (focal) and a generalised seizure (grand mal or tonic clonic). In a partial seizure, the abnormal brain activity occurs in a small part of the brain and the symptoms are much less severe.
Generalised seizures are due to abnormal electrical activity across the brain and are more common in epilepsy. A fit is split into three different stages:
Aural phase: This is when your dog signals that a fit is about to begin. His behaviour will change and he may become restless, apprehensive, hide, or seek attention. Some dogs will not show any signs.
Ictal phase: This is the actual seizure. Your dog will lose consciousness and usually fall to his side, become stiff or ‘toned', and make involuntary kicking motions. He may cry out and lose control of his bladder and bowels. Most seizures will last between a few seconds and three minutes.
Postical phase: This is the recovery period following the seizure. Your dog may be disorientated, uncoordinated, restless, unresponsive, and not himself. He may also temporarily struggle with his vision, as the heightened activity in the brain makes it difficult to interpret what he sees. Some dogs may only take a short time to recover, while for others it can take several hours.
During a seizure there is not much you can do. Ensure your dog cannot hurt himself during a fit by removing any potential dangers. If you own other dogs remove them from the area so he can be alone. All dogs react differently; when they're not themselves some dogs can get aggressive. Be careful not to put yourself in a position where your dog could bite or attack you.
You will get better at handling fits and will find out what works best for your dog. Your dog is most likely to have a fit when he is relaxed or sleeping. If a seizure is prolonged - lasting more than five minutes - or your dog has multiple seizures, without recovery, it is known as status epilepticus. This can be very serious, even lifethreatening, so you should seek veterinary help without delay.
If your dog has more than one fit in a 24-hour period, even with recovery, it is called serial or cluster seizures. These require veterinary attention; if your dog has three or more seizures it is an emergency. Your vet may alter your dog's treatment to try to prevent status epilepticus or cluster fits happening regularly.
Diagnosing epilepsy in dogs
If your dog has had a seizure your vet will look at your pet's history and give him an examination to try to find the cause. Your vet may run a series of tests which might include X-rays, blood tests, urine analysis, and an MRI scan of the brain. You will also be asked to keep an eye on your dog and report any further fits. If your vet's examination cannot find an underlying cause for the seizures a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy can be made.
Treating and managing epilepsy in dogs
Your vet will usually recommend medication to bring your dog's epilepsy under control if fits are occurring every three weeks or more frequently. Your dog may need a combination of different tablets. The medication will not prevent seizures completely but should make them occur less often.
It is important that owners make giving the medication part of their daily routine, as a sudden stop in taking the drugs can lead to a seizure. Diazepam or Valium may also be used to treat dogs who have status epilepticus.
There can be side effects from the treatments. Dogs may have an increased thirst and appetite which can make it difficult to control their weight. Some dogs may also appear drowsy for couple of weeks while they adjust to the medication. Your dog will need regular checks at the vet's to ensure the dosage is having a therapeutic effect.
Some groups and owners think that different diets and alternative therapies can help bring epilepsy under control and stave off fits. You should always discuss any other remedies with your vet.
Owners who are managing epilepsy in their dog are recommended to keep a seizure diary. Note the date, how long your dog fits for, and how your dog behaves. You can then take this to your vet to help him understand your dog's condition better. It also helps you to recognise what triggers fits and ways of improving your dog's recovery.
With treatment and monitoring, dogs can take part in activities and enjoy long and healthy lives. Many dogs go for months, or even years, without having a fit.