What is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy in dogs is the result of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain which causes seizures.
Around 1 in 20 dogs experience a seizure at some point in their lives. Some dogs may simply have a one-off seizure, as a result of swallowing something poisonous for example, but if they have repeated seizures then they have epilepsy.
Epilepsy in dogs is chronic and progressive and often starts between the ages of one and five years old.
Symptoms of Epilepsy
Before a dog has a seizure they may be dazed and confused.
During the seizure they may display any of the following symptoms:
- Jerky movements
- Foaming at the mouth
- Chewing the tongue
- Collapsing onto their side
- Becoming unconscious
No two seizures are likely to be the same.
A seizure typically lasts a few seconds to a few minutes. If it lasts more than a couple of minutes then its is best to see a vet as soon as possible.
Afterwards they may be unsteady, disoriented and confused for a couple of hours. They could even be temporarily blinded, or go into a coma, although this is extremely rare.
The most common type of seizure is known as a grand mal seizure. These are the types of seizures most people think of when epilepsy is mentioned. They cause twitching throughout the body as a result of widespread abnormal electrical activity in the brain.
Some seizures are the result of electrical activity affecting just one part of the brain and they cause twitching in just one side of the body or in a single limb. These seizures are called focal seizures. Seizures may start out as focal and develop into grand mal seizures.
The third type of seizures are psychomotor seizures and they involve strange behaviour, such as chasing the tail or going after an imaginary object. They typically last a few minutes. The dogs show the same behaviour each time they have such as seizure.
Epilepsy can be caused by genetics or environmental factors. Often a number of genes are involved, which means it’s not possible to breed out the condition.
Some of the causes include:
- Electrolyte problems
- Head injuries
- Heat stroke
- Brain tumour
- Low or high blood sugar
- High or low blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Encephalitis – brain tissue inflammation
- Swallowing a poison like slug pellets
Sometimes the cause is not known, in which case its referred to as idiopathic or primary epilepsy. This type of epilepsy is more common in certain breeds, including border colliers, Labrador retrievers, collies, German shepherds, beagles, Belgian Tervurens and Australian shepherds. Dogs with primary epilepsy tend to behave perfectly normally between seizures.
Diagnosing epilepsy in dogs involves a process of elimination which uses multiple tests to exclude various causes. Typically this starts with causes outside the brain and then looks at the brain itself.
Blood and urine samples are taken and then an MRI scan of the brain may be carried out too. Cerebrospinal fluid analysis may be used to look at structural causes, such as a brain tumour or inflammation.
If your dog has seizures, it is best to get them seen by a vet sooner rather than later in order to help stop the condition progressing.
You should certainly see a vet if they have:
- More than two seizures in 24 hours
- Seizures for more than two minutes
- More than two seizures in six months
- Recurrent tremors
Your vet will be able to provide treatment to reduce the frequency of seizures but not cure the condition.
The initial goal of treatment is to reduce the frequency of seizures by at least 50% within four weeks, although some dogs do experience full remission.
In 25 to 33% of cases the dog will require more than one medication.
There are two medications licensed for treating primary epilepsy in dogs. The first is Phenobarbital which is often prescribed under the trade name EpiphenTM and the other Imepitoin is prescribed under the trade name PexionTM.
Potassium bromide (prescribed under the trade name LibromideTM) is licensed for uncontrolled epilepsy in dogs.
Some drugs for humans may be used for dogs but they are a last resort because they may not work as well in dogs.
Your dog is likely to experience side effects from their medication, such as thirst and hunger which can result in increased urination and weight gain.They may also become tired, wobbly, excited or start panting. Side effects often get better after a few weeks of treatment.
It is important to always administer the medication exactly as instructed by your vet and not miss a dose.
When you notice your dog having a seizure it is understandable to want to comfort them but it is best not to go near them, especially their mouth, because they may accidentally bite you.
Be assured they are not in pain and won’t swallow their tongue although in rare cases they may bite it.
It can be distressing watching your dog having a seizure but try to stay calm and take the following practical steps to help them.
- Move any dangerous objects out of the way
- Turn off any lights or anything noisy like the television or radio
- Note down when the seizure started and when it ends – this will help the vet diagnose them
- Consider if anything may have triggered the seizure such as stress or an unusual environment. Exercise is not considered a trigger
- Film them to give the vet a clearer picture of what happened
- If the seizure lasts several minutes then they may overheat which can lead to brain damage. If this happens, try to cool them using a fan for example.
Follow these steps every time they have a seizure and present the notes to the vet to help them assess the best treatment for your dog.
Once the seizure is over, you may need to wait before comforting your dog because they may still not recognise you. If they are seeking your attention then it is safe to reassure them.
Their prognosis depends on how often they have seizures. Most dogs with epilepsy are able to live a perfectly normal life with medication to control the frequency of their seizures.
If they have several seizures in a short period of time then they are at risk of brain damage.
In the most extreme rare cases they may end up in a coma.
They may also need to have regular blood tests because the medication they are on could
build up in the liver and impact its function.
Our expert team of neurologists will be able to help find the most suitable treatment to give your dog the best chance of living a normal life.