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Pet Seizures and Epilepsy

There are many causes for seizures such as low blood glucose, head trauma, certain types of infection, genetic predisposition, exposure to or ingestion of toxins, brain tumors, low calcium levels, and certain liver conditions. Sometimes seizures are called "fits". A seizure is the result of an increased amount of electrical activity (a storm) in the brain. Epilepsy is the name given to repeated episodes of seizures for which no cause can be found.

Seizures that cannot be contributed to any specific cause are termed idiopathic, which means of unknown cause. A seizure will cause your pet's body to have many symptoms, including generalized convulsions, loss of consciousness, excessive salivation, and loss of bowel and bladder control.

Symptoms Your Pet Can Have During a Seizure:

  • stiffness of the whole body, or limbs
  • loss of consciousness
  • limbs extend and become rigid
  • vocalization such as screaming or crying
  • urinating
  • loss of bowel function
  • vomiting
  • salivating
  • sudden, violent shaking
  • muscle twitching, or slight shaking of a limb
  • staring, altered vision
  • temporary blindness after seizure

Types of Seizures

  • Petit mal seizures are a less severe form of a seizure. Usually brief, involves chewing, licking, nodding, or minor twitching. Dogs and cats often collapse into a sitting or lying position but don't fall over on their sides. They tend to have a partial loss of consciousness with a faraway look in their eyes.
  • Grand mal seizures are severe with widespread cramping of the body's skeletal muscles, also known as a tonic-clonic seizure, and characterized by loss of consciousness, falling down, loss of bowel or bladder control and rhythmic convulsions.
  • Partial seizures have movements that are restricted to 1 area of the body, such as muscle jerking, movement of 1 limb, or facial twitching.
  • Complex partial seizures have bizarre behaviors such as biting at imaginary flies, hysterical running, cowering or hiding.
  • Cluster seizures are multiple seizures that occur within a short time span with only brief periods of consciousness. Your pet must be taken to your veterinarian or an emergency pet clinic immediately.
  • Status epilepticus are a very dangerous situation, where rapid successions of grand mal seizures occur, without periods of rest or muscle relaxation between epileptic episodes, and can be fatal if not controlled. Again, your pet must been seen immediately.

The 4 Stages of a Seizure

1. Prodome: The prodome may precede the actual seizure by hours or days. Characterized by a change in mood or behavior. Human epileptics experience mood changes, headaches, insomnia, or feelings about the impending seizure. It is not known whether animals experience a prodome except for any behavioral changes observed by their owners.

2. Aura: This stage signals the start of the seizure. In dogs and cats restlessness, wandering, pacing, lip licking, hiding, wandering, trembling, vomiting, vocalization, whining, facial twitching, or snapping at imaginary flies may occur.

3. Ictus: The ictus is the actual seizure, characterized by sudden uncontrolled movement and thrashing. During this stage your pet is unconscious. Any vocalization is not due to pain. This is the period when dogs and cats often void their urine and bowels. Paddling or swimming movements, clenched teeth, and arched back are common during this stage and generally lasts for 30 seconds to 3 minutes. At the end of this stage your pet may vomit.

4. Postictus: This is the recovery stage. For minutes to days after the seizure your pet can present behavior changes such as being disoriented, dazed, confused, restless, unresponsive, wandering, or suffer from transient blindness. Dogs and cats are exhausted and sleep a lot. At this stage your pet is conscious but not entirely functional and may have a blank expression or appear to stare into space.

How to Prevent a Seizure in the Aura Stage
Stay calm. Staying calm is very important -- your pet depends on you and you have to stay calm to keep him calm.

In the beginning of the aura stage you may be able to stop a seizure from occurring by feeding a small amount of Karo syrup or honey. Small sized pets get 1 teaspoon, medium sized pets get 1 tablespoon, large dogs 2 tablespoons.

Also during the aura stage you may be able to prevent a seizure by placing a cold pack on the small of a pet's back. Wrap the cold pack in a towel prior to placing next to the pet's skin to prevent skin damage.

dog with cold pack on his back

The cold pack technique was tested both in an Emergency Room and a regular veterinary hospital as well as by people in their own homes, with 51 epileptic dogs. In all 51 cases, the technique either stopped or shortened the usual duration of the seizure, and in many cases, the postictus recovery time was also shortened.

The best part of the cold pack technique is not in any way harmful to your pet, and it does not involve giving extra medications. It's as simple as applying a cold pack to the lower-midsection of your dog or cat's back, and holding the cold pack firmly in position until the seizure stops. The top of the cold pack should rest just above the middle of your pet's back, following along the spine, and drape down to the lower-midsection of the back.

Don't worry about putting the cold pack in an exact place, just aim for the middle of the back and the correct area will be covered. The sooner the cold is applied, the better the results. So you should have the cold pack ready and prepared and remove as soon as the seizure has ended. Be careful not to cause a freezer burn!

Another technique that has proven to be effective in preventing a seizure from developing is called Ocular Compression (OC). By simply applying gentle pressure (as if you were taking a pulse) on your pet's closed eyes. During OC application, hold pressure approximately 5 - 8 seconds, release and repeat.

Similar to using the cold pack technique, start OC before the seizure starts if signs of an impending seizure are present. It has proven effective in preventing seizures from developing. If you were not able to apply OC before a seizure, start as soon as possible. If utilized early enough, you may be able to shorten the length of a seizure. Applied after a seizure, you may be able to reduce post seizure effects. In virtually all cases, post seizure symptoms have been dramatically eased.

Performing OC at night before sleep may be beneficial in preventing seizures during sleep. This pressure stimulates the Vagus Nerve which in turn releases GABA and glycine into the brain. GABA is an inhibitor that serves to shut down messages gone out of control (seizures), and restores balance in the brain. During sleep EEG patterns become synchronized. Vagal nerve stimulation disrupts this abnormal synchronization of EEG patterns by releasing large amounts (determined by amount of stimulation) of GABA and glycine, which inhibit electrical activity in the brain. This is what gives OC its anti-epileptic qualities.

If a Seizure Does Occur
Clear out the area around the dog or cat so there is nothing he can injure himself on during the seizure. If possible you can gently move your animal onto the floor and sit with him so he can't fall down from a bed or couch. Try to time the seizure because this will help you in your record keeping. Speak softly, and gently stroke your pet to reassure him that he is ok, even though he will not know you are present until the seizure begins to subside. Keep the room dark and quiet, and keep other family members and pets away.

After the Seizure
After the seizure has ended, recovery begins. There are important actions you should take during this time as well.

Give your pet a blood sugar boost. Low blood sugar levels can be the cause or the end result of a seizure. When your dog or cat regains consciousness, feed him Karo syrup or honey. Try to feed him a little bit of his dog food to keep the blood sugar levels stable. Your pet will be very thirsty so be sure to have cold fresh water for him to drink.

Bach Rescue Remedy for pets is a natural product that has calming effects. Put 3 - 4 drops under his tongue after the seizure, it will help settle him down in the postictus stage (when he's pacing after the seizure).

Many owners who have seizure affected dogs find a Thundershirt can be very helpful. This can also be put on a dog during the first stage of an impending seizure -- the prodome stage -- when you notice changes in behavior.

Stay with your pet for a while. Your remaining with him will make him feel safe and secure, which he will need after having a seizure. A little reassurance will go a long way. Temporary blindness is a common symptom after the seizure has ended.

Call your veterinarian if this is your pet's first seizure. Not every seizure warrants a trip to the veterinarian, but if there is more than 1 seizure in a day (clusters), or if the seizure continues for more than 5 minutes it is best for your pet to seen.

As soon as you are able, make a record:

  • Note the date, the time, the frequency, and duration of seizures.
  • Recall events and any behavior change that preceded the attack, including signs of an aura.
  • Describe the physical symptoms observed, and indicate whether or not both sides were involved in the seizure.
  • After your pet has recovered, check to see if fever is present.
  • List possible previous exposures to toxins, recent vaccinations, incidences of trauma, and boarding experiences with other dogs or cats.

Veterinary Treatment
Depending on the diagnosis, your veterinarian will make recommendations which could include administering anticonvulsant medications. When treating seizures the goal is to keep seizures to a minimum, while avoiding serious side effects. Follow your veterinarian's advice on how best to treat your pet's seizures. Certain medications are indicated for dogs or cats, and some just for dogs. Your veterinarian will be familiar with what is appropriate and at what dose and frequency.

Some veterinarians feel that it is wiser to start sooner than later on medications, because it appears that mirroring and kindling of seizures can occur. It is possible that by controlling seizures quickly through the use of medications that these effects could be stopped and that may lessen the amount or duration for seizure control medications.

Mirroring is when a seizure focus occurs in 1 side of the brain, and then an identical seizure occurs in the other side of the brain, after several seizures. Mirroring will increase the frequency of the seizures. This is a good reason for obtaining early control of the seizures.

Kindling is when the seizure focus in the brain develops strong enough pathways that it makes it easier for the seizure to occur -- almost as if the brain learns to seizure. Compare it to learning to ride a bike. The first few times you attempt it, you're in a learning mode. After you have learned to ride a bike, it's a simple process and you can do it "just like that!"