Epilepsy in Dogs
Many of us will be aware of common dog health issues such as joint problems or flea invasions, but few are aware that dogs can suffer from seizures like us humans, too. In support of National Epilepsy Day (otherwise known as World Purple Day) and to raise awareness of epilepsy in dogs, we have created a guide to support dog owners on managing the condition. We’ve also included other causes of seizures, due to conditions other than primary epilepsy, to look out for.
What is canine epilepsy?
The brain is a complex central nervous system. Irregular electrical activity, caused by genetics or trauma, can present as fitting, seizures or ‘funny turns’. The most common cause of epilepsy is an inherited condition called idiopathic (or primary) epilepsy. The actual cause of this is unknown, but can affect around 1 in 130 dogs in the U.K. Usually dogs will show signs of this between the ages of one and six, though occasionally it can start in younger dogs.
Your dog’s fitting could be a result of environmental factors, such as eating insecticides or poisonous flowers and plants found in the garden. Other causes of seizures include brain trauma or head injury, liver disease, kidney failure, high or low blood sugar, blood electrolyte changes or strokes.
What are the signs of epilepsy?
Depending on your dog’s condition, symptoms of epilepsy will vary. The level of intensity or frequency of fits can differ hugely between dogs – from an occasional mild fit every few months, (which will probably require no treatment), through to the other extreme where dogs can go into a continuous fit, called ‘status epilepticus’, in which case you should call your vet immediately. Some of the common signs of epilepsy include:
- Muscle spasms or tremors
- Paddling their legs, as if they’re trying to swim
- Drooling or foaming at the mouth
- Loss of consciousness
- Excessive panting
How is dog epilepsy diagnosed?
Your vet will take a full clinical history and will want to know how frequently the dog has fits, how severe they were, their duration and speed of recovery. Also, whether there has been any exposure to environmental toxins or poisonous plants. Further potential diagnostic tests include blood tests (to look at liver and kidney function, blood sugar and electrolyte levels), analysing samples of the fluid around the spinal cord, special X-rays using contrast medium, and MRI scans.
What treatment is available?
Your dog will never be ‘cured’ of idiopathic epilepsy, but by using anti-epileptic drugs, (such as Epiphen, Phenoleptil and Libromide) especially if started early on, attacks can potentially become less frequent and milder. As with any course of medication side effects are possible, including:
- Wobbliness (known at ataxia)
- Increased weight gain and urination from hunger and thirst
Should the diagnostic investigation show that the dog has an underlying condition such as liver or kidney disease, or diabetes, then the seizure symptoms can potentially be eliminated if this disease problem can be treated successfully. For dogs with brain tumours shown on MRI scans, surgery may be an option but this is rarely carried out and the prognosis is usually very bad. If the dog has ingested toxins, if not fatal then the speed and degree of recovery, and numbers of seizures, usually depends on how much has been eaten, as well as how toxic it is. Likewise, the seizures caused by head injuries, and recovery, will depend on the severity of the impact.
How can I manage my dog’s seizures?
When your dog is fitting, it’s important to remove any objects like furniture or ornaments so they can’t cause any injury to themselves. Similarly to humans, dogs can also be affected by light and noise. So music, lights and the television should be turned off. In extreme cases, a seizure can be triggered by strong odours such as scented candles or cigarette smoke so removal of these are essential if your dog is sensitive to these factors.
Keeping a pet seizure diary will help your vet decide what treatment plan is best to pursue. It will also allow you to detect what environmental factors could be a trigger of the seizures. Things you should note in your pet’s seizure diary are the duration, how they react and the severity of the seizure.
No doubt your dog will love walks to the park, woodland areas or just exploring the garden. You can’t always control external factors, like wild plants and fauna that can pose a risk to your dog’s wellbeing so maintaining a close eye on them is vital. At home though, you can make sure you use animal-friendly lawn and gardening products. Removing toxic plants from your garden will also minimise the chance of your dog ingesting any harmful toxins.
This Epilepsy in Dogs post is an opinion and should only be used as a guide. You should discuss any change to your pet’s care or lifestyle thoroughly with your vet before starting any program or treatment.
If in doubt contact your veterinary practice
And always keep your vet's phone number handy - just in case!