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Canine Epilepsy Explained

Canine Epilepsy Explained

Witnessing a dog having a seizure can be very distressing and frightening for owners. Canine epilepsy is a fairly common condition, although not all seizures are caused by epilepsy. It’s important for owners of dogs with epilepsy to understand what to look out for and how to properly care for them. This article covers everything from how to respond to a seizure episode to the available treatment options for canine epilepsy. 


What is canine epilepsy?

Canine epilepsy is a common chronic neurological condition that causes seizures in dogs. According to Blue Cross, around four in every 100 dogs are impacted by this condition. It’s a disorder in the brain that most commonly begins within the first five years of a dog’s life. When a seemingly healthy dog begins having frequent seizures for no apparent reason, this is known as idiopathic epilepsy. This type of epilepsy may occur due to the dog’s genetics. When there is an obvious cause for the condition, this is known as structural epilepsy. Epileptic seizures occur due to irregularities in the brain’s electrical activity. They often seem to begin and end in an abrupt fashion and the episodes are likely to look similar to each other.


Epileptic seizures in dogs

When a dog has an epileptic seizure, it will typically last between one and three minutes. Sometimes, they only last for a matter of seconds. During this time, they may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Dazed demeanour
  • Rigidity in the body and limbs
  • Unsteadiness
  • Collapsing 
    • This often results in them laying on one side
  • Convulsions
    • Jerking of the legs is common
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Loss of bowel control

While this is a very stressful event for owners to witness, it’s important to note that dogs are unconscious and therefore unresponsive during these episodes. This means they’re unaware of what’s happening to them and it’s very unlikely that they feel any pain from the seizures. Triggers for canine seizures can vary greatly between different dogs. However, they more commonly occur when a dog is in a relaxed state. Recovery from a seizure episode can be anywhere from immediate to a day long, although the latter is uncommon. 


What are the other potential causes of seizures in dogs?

While epilepsy is a common cause of seizures in dogs, particularly young dogs, it’s not the only potential cause. Other causes include:

  • Strokes
  • Heatstroke
  • Anaemia
  • Irregular blood pressure (low or high)
  • Consumption of toxic substances

Owners should always contact a vet for advice if they are unsure of the cause of their dog’s seizure. Unless an epilepsy diagnosis has been confirmed by a veterinary professional, it’s unsafe to assume that this condition is the cause. The only way to get the most suitable treatment and relieve the dog’s symptoms is by gaining a better understanding of the root cause.


What’s the best way to react when a dog has an epileptic seizure?

When a dog with epilepsy has a seizure, the best thing an owner can do is stay calm. This may feel difficult as the episodes can be visually frightening. However, it’s important for owners to remember that their dog is not aware of what’s happening. Another key reaction is ensuring the dog is not in harm's way. For example, the dog may be near furniture with sharp edges or corners, or near a flight of stairs. In cases like this, removing the potential dangers is crucial as the dog’s involuntary movements are unpredictable. If they’re in a safe place, it’s important not to attempt to move them. 

Some owners feel the need to place their hand or another object in their pet’s mouth. This is entirely unnecessary and owners should never act on this impulse. It does not increase the dog’s safety and puts the owner at risk of an involuntary bite injury. Instead, owners should focus their energy on observing the seizure, including how long it lasts, the symptoms being exhibited, how it began, and how it ends. This helps give their vet a clearer picture of the condition. Some vets may also request a video of the episode to gain a better understanding of the condition. Unless the dog has been prescribed an emergency treatment that can be administered during the seizure, it’s best to allow it to take its course. The owner can then be there for their pet to reassure them when they wake up. 



What are the treatment options for canine epilepsy?

Antiepileptic drugs, otherwise known as AEDs, are the main treatment option for canine epilepsy. While this condition cannot be cured, AEDs can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of a dog’s seizures. Some dogs do stop having seizures entirely, but according to The Kennel Club, this only occurs in around 15%-30% of epileptic dogs. Therefore, the overarching goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life. 

Once these medications have been prescribed, owners and veterinarians will need to monitor the dog closely for positive results and negative side effects. These medications are typically necessary for the duration of the dog’s life. Periodical vet visits can help owners ensure that the dosage is correct and that there aren’t any underlying side effects that would require a new treatment plan. Additional or alternative medications may be added to the treatment plan if the initial medications did not work or caused significant side effects. 


How can owners accommodate dogs with epilepsy?

Caring for a dog with epilepsy can feel overwhelming at times, but there are plenty of ways to accommodate their needs. Consistency is a key factor in this. Making sure the dog gets their medications at the same time in the same dose each day is crucial for minimising the effects of the condition. Owners should never stop providing epilepsy medication unless a vet has advised them to. Consistency within their diet is also important, as a new diet may impact the effectiveness of some medications. 

Another way to care for a dog with epilepsy is by tracking their seizure activity. This helps owners identify signs that a seizure is about to occur. It can also be a useful tool when monitoring the success of a treatment plan. If at any point an owner feels unsure about their dog’s treatment or the proper ways to care for them during or after seizures, they should contact a veterinarian for expert advice. 


Key takeaways

Here are the key points to remember about canine epilepsy:

  • Canine epilepsy is a common chronic condition that causes seizures in dogs.
  • While this condition can be frightening for owners, dogs are unconscious during seizure episodes and it’s extremely unlikely that they will feel any pain.
  • Calmness and consistency are two of the most important traits an owner of an epileptic dog can exhibit.
  • When canine epilepsy has no obvious cause, it’s called idiopathic epilepsy.
  • When canine epilepsy has an obvious cause, it’s called structural epilepsy.
  • Antiepileptic drugs can treat epilepsy in dogs, but there is no cure for the condition.
  • It’s important that owners follow a vet’s advice when responding to seizures, administering medications, and caring for their dogs. 
  • There are plenty of ways to accommodate an epileptic dog's needs, such as a consistent diet and an effective treatment plan.
  • Not all seizures in dogs are caused by epilepsy, so a vet’s assessment and diagnosis are necessary after a dog’s initial seizure episode(s).