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Seizures in Dogs : Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Imagine that your dog is healthy and happy. He loves to play and snuggle with you. He’s your best friend in the world.

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Then one day, without warning, he has a seizure where he falls over, loses control of his muscles, starts moving his legs around, drools, and doesn’t recognize you. He may lose control of his bowels.

You would probably be scared and horrified, not to mention worried about your dog. That’s what it’s like with canine epilepsy.

Canine Epilepsy 101

Canine epilepsy affects nearly 30 different breeds as well as mixed breeds. It seems like more breeds are discovering that they are affected by epilepsy every year. In fact, according to the AKC Canine Health Foundation, any breed of dog can be affected by canine epilepsy. It is believed to affect about 4-5 percent of the entire canine population. The causes of epilepsy are not completely understood and it can occur in different ways in different dogs. Seizures can begin in some cases when a dog is just a puppy. In other cases dogs are older, such as 5-6 years of age. The most common age of onset is between 2 and 3 years. If you know a person with epilepsy, epileptic seizures in dogs are very similar to epilepsy in humans.

In my breed, English Setters, we are just discovering that epilepsy is a problem. Most breeders and owners have never had an English Setter with epilepsy. From time to time someone might have had a dog with a seizure, but it was usually attributed to an injury or some bizarre household incident, like a reaction to a cleaning product. Dogs can, indeed, have seizures for these reasons. But now we have breeders coming forward and saying, without any doubt, that they have had dogs affected with epilepsy.

I spoke to one respected breeder who said she had a large litter of puppies and three of them had seizures. Can you imagine how heartbreaking that is for a breeder? I have known this person for years and I know how dedicated she is. All of her dogs are health-tested. Her dogs have every kind of championship title in the United States and Canada. She is an outstanding breeder who takes excellent care of her dogs. There was no way to know that epilepsy might be lurking in the breed at that time. To look forward to a litter with hope and excitement and then discover that three of the puppies had epilepsy must have been devastating.

There is no cure for epilepsy but in many cases dogs with epilepsy can be treated with anticonvulsant medication, such as phenobarbital and potassium bromide. Once a dog begins taking anticonvulsant medication, they need to continue taking it for the rest of their life. Starting the medication and discontinuing it can lead to more severe seizures. This treatment is most likely to help dogs who begin having seizures as adults and dogs that have milder seizures. Dogs that start having seizures as puppies or who have severe seizures have a bleaker prognosis. If the seizures can’t be controlled by medication and the dog begins having frequent seizures, many owners will make the painful decision to have their dog put to sleep because the dog’s quality of life is not good and it will only get worse.

You should know that a dog with epilepsy appears normal in every way. You cannot tell by looking at a dog that he has epilepsy. He acts like any other dog. His personality is the same. If your dog has epilepsy it can be successfully controlled in more than two-thirds of all cases. So, you should enjoy life with your dog. Don’t let the fact that your dog has epilepsy keep you and your dog from living. There is every reason to believe that your dog will live a good life and that you will be able to control his seizures.

Epilepsy and the brain

When a seizure occurs, it is believed that the neurons in the brain fire in an uncoordinated way instead of their normal way. It has been compared to an electrical storm in the brain. This activity may be due to a chemical imbalance. Seizures are also called “fits” or convulsions.

Causes of Seizures in Dogs

Seizures can be caused by many different things which will result in the neurons of the brain behaving in this unpredictable manner. Some of these causes include:

  • Brain injury
  • Brain tumors
  • Canine distemper or other infections
  • Diabetes
  • Eclampsia in nursing mothers
  • Fevers or heat stroke
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Hypothyroidism (or even hyperthyroidism)
  • Idiopathic epilepsy (cause unknown though often assumed to be genetic)
  • Kidney problems
  • Liver problems
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Some medications
  • Toxins such as chocolate, antifreeze, or lead

In general, seizures fall into two categories: symptomatic, meaning that they have a discernible cause and the seizure is a symptom. A seizure as a result of a head trauma would fall into this category. The dog might have recurring seizures and be considered epileptic, but the original cause would be the head trauma. The other kind of epileptic seizure is known as idiopathic, genetic, or primary. With this kind of epilepsy, the cause is often unknown but there is often a strong suspicion that the epilepsy is inherited. You will often see this kind of epilepsy referred to as idiopathic epilepsy or IE.

Since dogs can have seizures for so many different reasons, this is why it’s very important for you to observe your dog and write down details about his seizures for your vet. It’s important for your vet to know if your dog ate chocolate, had an injury, or is taking any medications, for example. Everything you can tell your vet about your dog can help him or her make a correct diagnosis.

Different Kinds of Seizures

Your dog can have different kinds of epileptic seizures. There are four kinds of seizures:

  • Partial seizure: In a partial seizure a dog may have a seizure that only affects one part of his body. These seizures can be caused by a lesion on the brain.
  • General seizure: There are two kinds of general seizures. They are a grand mal seizure and a petit mal seizure. Both of these seizures affect a dog’s entire body. Grand mal seizures are more common. In a grand mal seizure a dog will typically fall onto his side and lose control of their muscle activity. They usually kick or move their legs like they’re swimming. They drool and the dog often urinates and/or defecates because they have no control of their body. The dog is not aware of people, their surroundings, or what they are doing.
  • In a petit mal seizure the dog doesn’t have convulsions but they lose consciousness and usually appear to simply collapse.
  • Status: The fourth kind of seizure is called status or “Epilepticus Status”. It is considered to be the worst kind of seizure. It has all of the characteristics of the grand mal seizure but instead of having one seizure and then recovering, the dog has one seizure after another, without time to recover. A dog can be in a state of seizure for hours. Most seizures are not life-threatening but if your dog is in status you should see veterinary help for your dog immediately.

Diagnosis and Treatment

In order to diagnose epilepsy in your dog it’s important to observe the pattern of his seizures. If your dog has one seizure it doesn’t mean he has epilepsy. It’s possible for a dog to have one seizure and never have another one for the rest of his life.

Whenever your dog has a seizure of any kind, you should carefully observe the type of seizure, how long it lasts, your dog’s behavior, what your dog was doing prior to the seizure, and any other factors involved. Although many web sites tell you that it’s not necessary to take your dog to the vet after he has a seizure, as a dog lover, let’s get real. If your dog has a seizure you are probably going to freak out, so go ahead and take your dog to the vet. Your vet may not be able to do much or make a diagnosis based on one seizure, but it will probably make you feel better and it might be helpful. If your dog continues to have seizures you can report the patterns you have observed to help your vet make a diagnosis.

Note: If your dog has one seizure, it is not an emergency situation. However, I don’t think it will do any harm to take your dog to the vet and it might be helpful.

There is no test for epilepsy but your vet might wish to do some lab work or take some x-rays to rule out other possible causes of your dog’s seizures. Your vet probably won’t make a diagnosis of epilepsy until he or she has ruled out everything else. Your dog can have a seizure and that doesn’t mean he has epilepsy. However, if he has recurring seizures, the epilepsy term is more likely to apply.

Once your vet is satisfied that your dog has epilepsy, there are some ways to treat it. It is not possible to cure epilepsy but it is possible to decrease the frequency of the episodes, make them less severe, and shorten the seizures. The medications most commonly used to treat epilepsy are phenobarbital and potassium bromide. It is important to follow your vet’s instructions for giving medication precisely or you could trigger an epileptic episode in your dog.

Conditions That Can Resemble Seizures

There are some conditions that can be confused with seizures. A dog with a severe ear infection can suffer from dizzy spells that may cause him to wobble and even fall over. Old dogs can also have vestibular problems that cause them to lose their balance and fall over. A dog with heart disease can faint. Dogs can have strokes. Some dogs have sleep disorders which can lead them to collapse or thrash about while they are dreaming. Dogs can collapse for many reasons that are unrelated to having a seizure.

If your dog displays these symptoms, your vet should be able to tell the difference between these conditions and epilepsy by examining your dog.

What To Do If Your Dog Has a Seizure

  • If your dog has a seizure it is important for you to stay calm. Try to place your dog in the floor. Remove anything that he could hit or harm himself by hitting such as furniture. You can place a cushion under his head if you can do so carefully.
  • Do not put your hands near your dog’s head or mouth. Your dog is unaware of you and he may bite in this condition.
  • Remove any children or pets from the area.
  • Observe your dog and make notes so you can report the incident to your vet. Many people recommend keeping a seizure diary for your dog. You can download one on the AKC Canine Health Foundation site.
  • A typical seizure is not an emergency. You don’t need to call your vet unless the seizure lasts more than about 3 minutes or if your dog is going into status and has one seizure after another without time to recover. After your dog recovers, you can call your vet and report the incident. Your vet may or may not tell you to bring your dog in.
  • After a seizure it is normal for a dog to be a little disoriented and confused. Help him relax and rest.

The Way Forward

While some forms of epilepsy can be due to injury, tumors, reactions to medications, and other things, some epilepsy is genetic. Unlike the easy-peasy Mendelian genetics most of us learn in high school, epilepsy is not so easy to figure out when it comes to how it is inherited. It’s not a simple dominant or recessive gene. It seems to be polygenetic, involving multiple genes from both male and female parents. Add to this the fact that the inherited form of epilepsy may not appear until a dog is several years old – and has already had puppies of his or her own – and you can see that this disease is particularly difficult for a dog breeder.

There is a tendency for breeders to want to keep quiet about a problem like epilepsy. We all want to think our dogs are perfect; we don’t want to be criticized by our peers; and admitting there is epilepsy in your bloodlines could mean losing years of your life spent in dogs if you have to stop breeding your current dogs. It may be hard for some people to understand how emotionally invested hobby/show breeders are in their dogs, but to many breeders they are like children. Discovering there is a genetic problem with your dogs and possibly having to give up decades of something you have loved and worked on with all your heart is hard to do. It’s not easy to just start over.

Fortunately there are lots of researchers doing some amazing research today. At the University of Missouri, home of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), they have been studying canine epilepsy for over 10 years. You can find out more information about the Canine Epilepsy Project at the University of Missouri here. The University of Minnesota is also doing research on canine epilepsy. You can see some of the breeds participating in the research and the grants that have been given as well.

The University of Missouri will soon be working on whole genome sequencing for some breeds affected by epilepsy. This is an expensive study (about $2500 per dog – though it used to be much more expensive before the latest equipment). English Setter breeders (with the help of English Setter fanciers and matching funds from other sources), have already raised enough money to have this sequencing done for several dogs that have epilepsy. Collecting DNA from the dogs isn’t painful. It usually just involves collecting a blood sample and having your vet send it to the researchers. Some breed clubs have DNA collection for dogs at their national specialty shows so they can get a good representative sample for their breed.

Whole genome sequencing is done in the lab so the researchers can look at the dog’s entire genome at one time. The hope is that by looking at the entire genome for dogs affected by epilepsy, the researchers can identify a “marker” that stands out in these dogs. This would allow breeders to test dogs in the future to see if they had the marker or not before breeding – and hopefully reduce the chances of producing a puppy with epilepsy. By knowing which dogs had the marker for epilepsy, breeders could make better, more informed decisions and not breed two dogs that carried the genes for epilepsy, for example.

Beyond the canine epilepsy research at the University of Missouri and the University of Minnesota, researchers in Finland have recently made progress with epilepsy in the Belgian Shepherd. The implications for other breeds are unclear. And researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK are looking at new ways to diagnose epilepsy.

Currently there is no test to determine if a dog has epilepsy or if it’s in his or her genes. You don’t know unless the dog has seizures. Having a genetic test that could identify a dog as a carrier or affected before he ever has a seizure would be a game-changer for everyone. Finding a marker can also mean finding new treatments. And, finding a genetic marker in dogs can lead the way to making similar breakthroughs in human epilepsy research.

Living with an Epileptic Dog

There are many degrees of epilepsy. Some dogs rarely have a seizure but other dogs have a harder time. Some seizures are very mild while others can be severe. Some owners find that a good support group helps. One of the very best places to turn for help, information, and advice if you have an epileptic dog is Epil-K9, an Internet group. You can find information about the group and how to join here. Everyone is welcome.

You can also find information about living with an epileptic dog on this site. There are some basic things that the owner of an epileptic dog should know – and some other things that you may not even think about. This page has you covered.

You can also get some good advice from the Epi-Guardian Angels. On this page these members of the Epi-Guardian Angels tell you what they do when their dogs are having seizures. Lots of great information. You can find more information from the Epi-Guardian Angels here.

Triggers and Remedies

As usual, every dog is different, but it has been suggested that some dogs with epilepsy can have seizures triggered by stress, changes in the weather, or other things. For many dogs there is no pattern that anyone can see. For some dogs, the herb rosemary – and other essential oils – have been widely discussed as seizure triggers. This may not apply to your dog, but they have affected some dogs.

You may be tempted to try herbal remedies or other alternative therapies for your epileptic dog but please keep in mind that “herbal” and “natural” don’t necessarily mean “safe.” Some herbal or natural remedies can be harmful or make your dog’s condition worse. Their claims are not evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and they do not have to follow the same requirements that prescription drug makers follow. Please work with your veterinarian.


Epilepsy comes in many forms and it’s no picnic for dog or owner. But most dogs can be treated and live a normal life. There is every reason to think that you and your dog can have a very happy life together even if he has epilepsy. Research being done today may lead to a cure in the future or at least a way to identify genes for epilepsy so we can stop this disease.

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