As a pet parent, few things are more frightening than watching helplessly while your pet experiences a seizure. Seizures in dogs and cats are due to abnormal electrical activity in the brain. They can cause violent convulsions, or be so subtle you may not even realize your pet is having one. Your pet can have one seizure and never have another, or the seizures can keep coming back again and again over the course of your pet’s lifetime.
Most seizures in dogs and cats tend to occur at night or while they are calm and resting. They are much more common in dogs (particularly purebreds) than in cats, but any pet can experience a seizure.
What Causes Seizures In Dogs And Cats?
Seizures happen when specialized nerve cells in the brain, called neurons, malfunction and start firing rapidly without any control. Contrary to popular belief, seizures are not always caused by epilepsy; they can be caused by anything that puts stress or pressure on the brain.
This can include:
- Brain inflammation (such as encephalitis)
- Exposure to toxins, including antifreeze, insecticides, rat poison, or poisonous plants
- Traumatic injury, such as being hit by a car
- Very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Infection of the brain or spinal cord caused by bacteria, virus, or fungus
- Severe anemia
- Brain tumors
- A heavy infestation of parasites such as heartworm or roundworm
- Thyroid problems
- Liver disease
- Kidney failure
- Certain autoimmune diseases
- Vitamin deficiencies (especially in cats)
- Infectious diseases in cats, such as FIV, FIP, or toxoplasmosis
Female dogs who have given birth can also experience seizures if their blood calcium levels are depleted by nursing puppies.
When a dog or cat is experiencing multiple seizures and all other causes have been ruled out, only then is the pet diagnosed with true epilepsy.
Epilepsy – The Mystery Illness
Epilepsy is referred to as an “idiopathic” disease, which simply means no one really knows what causes it. Pets with epilepsy show no unusual abnormalities in their brains, and the neurons seem to be working properly – except when they don’t.
Epilepsy is common in dogs, but rare in cats (most cats with repeated seizures usually have an underlying brain disease causing the problem). Most pets who develop epilepsy are between the ages of one and five years. This condition is thought to be genetic, originating in the animal’s DNA, making it able to be passed down from parents to offspring.
Certain breeds of purebred dogs and cats are predisposed to developing epilepsy. They include Beagles, Golden Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Australian Shepherds, Irish Setters, German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Belgian Tervurens, Dachshunds, Schnauzers, Collies, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Poodles, St. Bernards, and Wirehair Fox Terriers. Brachycephalic breeds with flat faces, such as Bulldogs and Pugs, are also more prone to seizures. In the cat world, Persian and Siamese breeds are most at risk.
However any pet, regardless of breed, can develop epilepsy.
What Happens During A Seizure?
Seizures in dogs and cats can be mild or severe. During a seizure, the brain sends out random electrical impulses to the nerve cells. This sets off a chain reaction where the nerve cells go into overdrive and begin firing off their own electrical impulses to groups of muscles in the body, causing the muscles to contract.
Seizures that cause severe muscle contractions throughout the entire body are called “grand mal” seizures. Less severe seizures that only affect a few muscle groups are referred to as “petit mal” seizures. The most severe type of seizure is “status epilepticus”, where multiple seizures occur over and over with no rest periods in between. When this happens, blood and oxygen are unable to reach the brain and vital organs, and the pet can actually die from lack of oxygen.
Most full seizures have 3 distinct stages:
First Stage: Pets start to show changes in mood and behavior, and may appear anxious. They may begin pacing, trembling, licking their lips, and staring off into space. Some pets may drool or vomit, try to hide, or seek out family members for comfort. This stage can last anywhere from several minutes to several days.
Second Stage: The seizure hits. During this stage, pets may clench their teeth, arch their backs, fall over, and begin paddling their legs. They may lose control of their bladder and/or bowels. During this time, pets are unconscious and unaware of their surroundings. They may whine or cry, although they are not feeling pain.
Third Stage: This is the recovery period. Dogs and cats in this stage may appear dazed or look hung over, with a blank expression. Some may experience a temporary loss of vision and bump into things, or suffer from temporary hearing loss. They may act ravenously hungry or even uncharacteristically aggressive. Since seizures are so hard on the body, pets in this stage are exhausted and tend to sleep a lot. Recovery is gradual, and can last from a few minutes up to several days.
Less severe types of seizures that only affect a portion of the body are called “focal seizures”. These partial seizures can be easily missed by pet parents. During focal seizures, the dog or cat remains conscious, but they may temporarily “space out” or exhibit quirky, repetitive behavior such as running in circles, snapping at invisible flies, or repeatedly biting the skin on their flanks.
The dog in the video below is experiencing a focal seizure. Note how this doesn’t look like a typical seizure, so it would be easy to miss.
Diagnosing Causes of Seizures
If your pet has a seizure, it’s important to have them examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Your vet will run a complete blood chemistry panel and urinalysis to rule out exposure to toxins, infection, or organ disease. More specialized tests, such as an MRI or CT scan, will help rule out brain tumors or cancer. Your vet may also recommend a spinal tap, which tests the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for infection.
If all tests come back normal, the diagnosis will most likely be epilepsy.
Treatment Of Seizures In Dogs And Cats
There are several different types of medications available to help control recurring seizures in dogs and cats. Just like humans, every pet patient is unique, so what works well for one pet may not work well for another. Having so many options available allows veterinarians to use these drugs either alone or in combination to customize treatment plans for their epileptic patients.
Some of the most commonly prescribed medications for seizures include:
- Phenobarbital (this is usually the first medication prescribed for dogs and cats. It works well, is inexpensive, and may be given by itself or in combination with potassium bromide.)
- Diazepam (Valium®)
- Gabepentin (Neurontin®)
- Clorazepate (Tranxene®)
- Levetiracetam (Keppra®)
- Felbamate (Felbatol®)
- Zonisamide (Zonegran®)
Some pets who’ve experienced a seizure may not require any treatment at all. Since all drugs have side effects, if seizures are infrequent (the benchmark is usually one every six months or longer), it may be better to live with the occasional seizure than risk putting the dog or cat on lifelong medication.
What To Do If Your Pet Has A Seizure
Seizures can be scary and upsetting. However, keep in mind that the vast majority of seizures are not life-threatening and usually only last between 1 and 3 minutes, so it’s generally best to keep the pet quiet at home rather than trying to race to the emergency room.
If you see your pet having a seizure, try to note the time it starts and stops. Seizures lasting longer than 5 minutes can become life-threatening, especially if the pet is having trouble breathing, so timing is important.
During a seizure, you can help your pet by:
- Not getting bitten! Do not place your fingers anywhere near your pet’s mouth. Dogs and cats will not “swallow their tongue”, so unless your pet is having so much trouble breathing that its tongue is turning blue, there’s no need to intervene. If your pet is blue and struggling to breathe, you can try carefully passing 2 towels through the mouth, then pulling up on one and down on the other to force the mouth open slightly.
- Gently placing your pet’s head on a pillow, blanket, or soft folded towel so the head doesn’t hit the floor during convulsions. You can also place blankets or towels underneath your pet in case there’s a loss of bladder or bowel control.
- Keeping your distance. Don’t try to hold your pet during a seizure, as they will not be aware of your presence until they come out of it, and you could inadvertently become injured.
- Removing all objects nearby so your pet doesn’t accidentally hit something, causing injury.
- Keeping the room dark, and as cool as possible to prevent overheating.
- Keeping all other pets and family members away until your pet recovers.
- Speaking softly to your pet during the recovery period to comfort them. They won’t be able to hear you during the seizure itself, but afterwards they most likely will be disoriented and frightened. You can also stroke them gently during recovery to help calm them if they respond well to your touch. If they seem agitated or aggressive, the best thing you can do is to leave them alone to recover on their own.
Remember that even if your pet is crying loudly and thrashing, they are not experiencing any pain, so try not to panic and wait as calmly as you can until the episode is over.
Be Aware, Not Afraid
If your dog or cat has a seizure, it’s important to get your veterinarian’s advice as soon as possible. If recurring seizures are not treated, they can become more frequent and severe as increasingly larger areas of the brain become affected. Also keep in mind that once anti-seizure medication is started, it must usually be given for the rest of your pet’s life; if it’s stopped, it can cause an even greater risk for seizures in the future.
Although there’s no real cure for epilepsy and seizures in dogs and cats, seizure activity can often be successfully managed with the right types and combinations of medication. Fortunately, true epilepsy will usually not shorten a pet’s life. And although dogs with epilepsy typically have a better long-term prognosis than cats, even in cats seizures can often be controlled for a time.
If your pet is diagnosed with epilepsy, working closely with your veterinarian, giving medication consistently, and being patient and observant will give your pet the best chance for a full life.
Has your dog or cat ever had a seizure? Have you ever provided long-term care for a pet with epilepsy? Please share your story with us in the comments below!