Features November 2018 Issue

Dog Seizures: Causes and Treatments

Significant clues include the age of onset, the dog’s breed, and his response to treatment.

There are few things as frightening as watching your dog have a seizure. Yet seizure disorders are surprisingly common in canines. A seizure is defined as uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. Seizures can run the gamut from very minor, focal seizures (a twitching of the face or a leg) to major convulsions in which a dog loses consciousness, may vocalize loudly, has uncontrolled muscle movements, and loses bowel and/or bladder control.

Types of Dog Seizures

A seizure or “ictus” is comprised of three phases. The pre-ictal phase can begin as much as 24 hours before a seizure and is not always obvious. Your dog may act strange during this period, but this is usually only recognized in retrospect. The second phase is ictus (the seizure itself). In the third, or post-ictal period, your dog is recovering from the seizure. It can be stressful and disturbing to witness, and it varies significantly between dogs. The post-ictal stage can include a deep sleep that lasts several hours to an entire day, confusion, and abnormal behavior, including ravenous hunger or complete anorexia, dilated pupils, and in some cases, blindness that will resolve. Your dog may be disoriented for a short time, but this period is otherwise not dangerous.

dog getting MRI

A Dachshund who has been experiencing seizures is about to have a computed tomography (CT) scan of his brain. He has been fully anesthetized, as it can take 30 to 45 minutes to get all the images needed. Image by Nick Archambault DVM, DACVIM (Neurology), Specialists in Companion Animal Neurology, Naples, FL.

In the past, seizures have been categorized as grand mal (French meaning “great sickness”) or petit mal (“small sickness”). These terms are no longer used to describe seizure activity, as they are considered too vague. The more recent classifications are tonic-clonic, clonic, and tonic. Seizures can also be described as generalized, focal, or psychomotor.

In a tonic-clonic seizure, the first, very short phase is the tonic. The dog will suddenly stiffen and collapse if standing. Next is the clonic phase, in which the muscles contract and relax rapidly. This is the type of seizure with which most people are familiar. It is often called a convulsion and represents the most common, generalized seizure type in dogs.

A tonic seizure is usually brief (less than one minute) and involves a sudden stiffening of the muscles. This is a less common manifestation of a seizure disorder. A clonic seizure is rhythmic muscle jerking that generally starts in one area of the body. It is very rare and often associated with canine distemper virus. Both a tonic seizure and a clonic seizure can be generalized or focal.

Psychomotor seizures often manifest as unusual behavior, such as “flybiting” at the air or staring into space and not responding to cues. Sometimes, they are called “absence spells,” as the pet seems unaware and unresponsive to his surroundings.

Seizures can last from seconds to hours. When a seizure doesn’t stop after a few minutes, it is called status epilepticus. In this scenario, the body temperature will start to go up due to the repeated muscle contraction, and heat stroke can result. A dog’s body temperature can elevate to as high as 110 degrees or more if the seizure is not interrupted. Prolonged hypoxia (low oxygen) to the brain due to seizures can also cause damage. Status epilepticus is always an emergency.

Medical Emergency: Status Epilepticus

Status, as it’s commonly called, occurs when a seizure persists and will not stop without medical intervention. This is always an emergency and requires veterinary attention. Benzodiazepines like Valium will be given intravenously to stop the seizure. Your dog may need to be cooled to prevent heat stroke. He may need to stay on a continuous infusion of medications like Propofol (an anesthetic) to break the seizure cycle and allow recovery. This can take two to four days in some cases. The prognosis is guarded for recovery.

dog vet check in

The tests needed to rule out an underlying cause for seizures can be expensive, so this diagnosis is often made based on breed, clinical signs, and response to treatment.

Dog Seizure Causes and Diagnostics

Causes of seizures can be divided by age group:

Dogs Less Than Six Months

A dog of this age with sudden onset of seizures likely has a congenital problem, infection with parasites such as Neospora, infection with a virus such as canine distemper or rabies, or toxin exposure. Epilepsy at this age is extremely rare.

The first step of evaluation is, as always, a thorough history. Puppies are prone to ingesting toxic substances such as rat baits and gum sweetened with xylitol. As a result, if your puppy presents with seizures, your veterinarian will recommend a thorough diagnostic work-up. This will start with a complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel, urinalysis, and fecal examination.

Bloodwork will evaluate for metabolic causes of seizures, such as liver failure, electrolyte abnormalities, or low blood sugar. A urinalysis will help determine how the kidneys are functioning, as well as look for evidence of any inflammation or infection within the urinary tract. Your vet may also recommend specific blood tests to rule out parasites such as Neospora caninum and Toxoplasma gondii.

If those tests do not reveal a cause, your vet will refer you to a specialist for a cerebrospinal tap and imaging of the brain such as an MRI or CT scan. Because epilepsy is very rare in dogs this age, it is important to find the cause of the seizures. Without definitive diagnosis, the underlying condition is likely to worsen, as are the seizures.

If further testing is not financially possible, your veterinarian will start empirical treatment based on the suspected underlying cause. This may or may not be effective.

Dogs Aged Six Months to Five Years

Epilepsy becomes the most likely diagnosis in this age group when other causes are excluded. Epilepsy is not a disease per se. It is a description of seizure activity for which no underlying cause can be found.

A diagnosis of epilepsy cannot be made definitively until every other cause of seizures is ruled out. The tests needed to rule out an underlying cause can be expensive, however, so this diagnosis is often made based on breed, clinical signs, and response to treatment. Beagles, Schnauzers, Collies, Cocker Spaniels, and Basset Hounds are predisposed to epilepsy.

Your veterinarian will recommend the same set of diagnostic tests as for puppies and likely add a blood pressure measurement, thyroid levels, and x-rays of the chest and abdomen. If those are normal, the next steps are imaging of the brain as outlined above. In most cases, owners do not opt for the advanced testing and instead treat the suspected epilepsy with anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs).

Dogs Older Than Five Years

In dogs older than five, the most common cause of seizures is a brain tumor. These are generally benign tumors, such as meningiomas. Seizures can result from the tumor pressing on nearby structures as well as from swelling around the tumor.

The same diagnostic algorithm is followed as above, and again, many owners opt to merely treat the seizures without an in-depth exploration of the causes. While brain tumors are generally benign and can be removed via surgery, they are invasive and carry a guarded prognosis for recovery.

The causes of seizures are vast and varied. They can be broadly divided into extra-cranial (outside the brain) and intracranial (inside the brain).

Extra-cranial diseases include metabolic disease such as liver failure, toxin ingestion like xylitol or bromethalin rat poison, insulinoma (a tumor of the pancreas causing low blood sugar), infectious diseases like rabies and canine distemper virus, parasitic infection, and electrolyte derangements.

dog mri scan brain tumor

An image taken by MRI that shows a dog whose seizures proved to be caused by a large mass in his forebrain. Image by Nick Archambault DVM, DACVIM (Neurology), Specialists in Companion Animal Neurology, Naples, FL.

Intracranial causes are almost as varied and include cancer, inflammatory conditions such as necrotizing encephalomyelitis, previous head trauma leading to scar tissue formation within the brain, and vascular abnormalities like blood clots.

Dog Seizure Treatments

The first step in treatment may be nothing at all. If seizures are short and not frequent, treatment may not be necessary.

While they are difficult to witness, if the seizures are brief (under five minutes) and self-limiting, then they are not dangerous to your dog. In this case, your veterinarian may not prescribe medication but simply have you keep a “seizure journal.” This involves writing down when the seizures happen, what could have precipitated them (stress, anxiety, sleep), how long it lasted, and how long it takes your pet to recover. Your veterinarian will use this log to help dictate when to start treatment and what treatment to start.

In 2016, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) released a consensus statement regarding when to start AED therapy. In general, if the seizures are mild and infrequent, therapy is not recommended. If they are severe and frequent, or the dog has a history of previous head trauma, or if there is an obvious lesion on CT/MRI (such as a brain tumor), AEDs should be started.

If the seizures are becoming a problem, medication is the first step. There are four commonly used AEDs in veterinary medicine, but more drugs are currently under study and are tentatively being used.

The most commonly prescribed first-line medication is phenobarbital, although this is slowly changing. “Pheno,” as it is frequently called, has long been used to treat seizures in humans and animals, so the effects and side effects are well-known, and the drug is readily available and inexpensive. It is also very effective. Unfortunately, it does have side effects such as sedation, weight gain, panting, increased appetite, and increased liver enzymes.

Phenobarbital is usually given twice a day and is a controlled substance under FDA regulations. It should not be stopped abruptly, as this can lead to more seizures. If you start administering this drug to your dog, make sure you are always prepared with refills before you run out! This will require at least a yearly examination with your veterinarian to maintain a valid client-patient relationship (VCPR).

Your veterinarian will also recommend monitoring of liver values and phenobarbital levels, likely on a bi-annual or annual schedule. This will help determine the effects that phenobarbital is having on your dog’s body. It will also assist your veterinarian in determining how much more (or less) phenobarbital your dog can receive.

About 30 percent of dogs will achieve good seizure control on phenobarbital. Greater than 75 percent will have a significant reduction in seizure frequency. About 30 percent of dogs will require an additional drug to control their seizures.

Historically, potassium bromide has been the next drug of choice. This is changing, as more and more veterinarians are becoming comfortable with and using newer AEDs. Potassium bromide also causes sedation and can be associated with pancreatitis, as well as a condition called bromism (bromide toxicity). It is being used less as newer drugs replace it.

The two newest AEDs are levetiracetam (Keppra) and zonisamide (Zonegran). Keppra has been used in humans in the U.S. for the past 10 years. It has very few known side effects and does not damage the liver. It is safe to use in patients with compromised kidney or liver function and does not generally cause drowsiness. It requires dosing every eight hours and can be expensive for larger dogs. An extended release formulation is sometimes available and can be given twice a day. It is also less cost effective. Unfortunately, there are few studies to evaluate how well it works in canines, so Keppra’s use is currently anecdotal. As time passes, there will likely be more evidence for its usage, more generics available, and a twice-daily formulation will become readily available.

Zonisamide is similar to Keppra. How it works to prevent seizures is not clear. It has possible side effects of sedation, decreased appetite, ataxia (wobbly walking), and might contribute to liver and urinary problems, though this has not been proven. It is also given twice a day.

In some cases, one drug can control seizure activity. In others, multiple seizure medications are needed.

Recently, a veterinary therapeutic diet was released by Purina that may significantly improve seizure control when given with medications. This diet uses medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) as the fat source. These MCTs have an anti-seizure effect and can improve control in conjunction with medication therapy.

Your veterinarian may send you home with an anti-seizure medication to apply into the rectum or nostrils if your dog has a seizure.

There are other, less mainstream treatment options such as vagal nerve stimulator implants. These are not commonly done and are only used in the most refractory cases.

Catherine Ashe is a 2008 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. After nine years in emergency medicine, she now works as a relief veterinarian in Asheville, North Carolina.

Comments (12)

My Minature poodle has had primary seizure disorder since he was 2-3 months old. He takes phenobarbital daily which reduces the frequency slightly and reduces the severity of the seizures a great deal. He definitely does better on an all natural, higher meat protein dog food with lamb and either rice or oatmeal which are low trigger foods for the allergies he also has. The wrong food will cause a seizure either immediately or within a few hours of ingesting. I supplement this with fresh cooked lamb used as a daily treat mixed with his dog food once a day. This diet definitely has made a difference. He is now 12 years old and very healthy other than the seizures. No weight, arthritis or other health problems are evident and his vet visits and blood tests have found no other issues.

Posted by: Sherkk | February 11, 2019 9:33 AM    Report this comment

glad to see the inclusion of insulinoma as a cause. A number of years ago my beloved pup had her first seizure and we were seeing an arrogant vet who immediately decided based on age (11 or 12) that she had a tumor. His attitude caused stress and trauma and financial damage as we went through the diagnostic process that was inconclusive and put her on phenobarb which did virtually nothing because the cause was not being treated and she continued to suffer until we found a new vet who LISTENED to me and realized something, then checked it out with lab work. A simple blood test confirmed after months of our suffering that she had an insulinoma and we treated her medically for over 1 or 2 years.

Posted by: robin r | November 25, 2018 12:45 AM    Report this comment

Just a note, folks: The article in no way said to feed "Purina." It said, "a veterinary therapeutic diet was released by Purina"... "may significantly improve seizure control when given with medications." That's not an endorsement of ALL Purina foods, and especially junk like Beneful.

Here is more information on the specific diet mentioned. Motivated owners could likely use some of this information to make changes to their home-prepared diets, or supplement another commercial diet, to realize some of the benefits shown by the diet.

Information from Purina:

Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets NC NeuroCare is formulated with medium chain triglyceride (MCT) oil to help nutritionally manage dogs with epilepsy that are also being administered anti-epilepsy drugs. The goal of the diet is to add ketones as an energy source for the brain, an approach used extensively in children with epilepsy. Dogs readily metabolize MCTs to produce ketones, scientists say, and researchers also believe MCTs may have direct anti-seizure effects by blocking certain receptors in the brain. Purina partnered with the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in London on a six-month randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blinded crossover study in dogs with idiopathic epilepsy to examine the effects of a diet with MCT oil on seizure frequency when fed as an adjunct to veterinary therapy. Here are some of the results:

> 71% of dogs showed a reduction in seizure frequency.
> 48% of dogs showed a 50% or greater reduction in seizure frequency.
> 14% of dogs achieved complete freedom from seizures.

Purina developed its NeuroCare diet based on this information. The diet also features eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), antioxidants and B vitamins, which research has shown can help dogs with cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).

Posted by: WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns | October 31, 2018 11:53 AM    Report this comment

Really WJD?!? Your article talks of Purina as helpful? What about raw food, healthy species-appropriate diets, CBD oil, stopping over vaccination and chemicals and toxins in the home, etc. etc. etc.? Quite disappointed with this article.

Posted by: jcnick34 | October 31, 2018 8:07 AM    Report this comment

My pup started having seizures (small focal seizures where she drools and her eyes are glassy and her jaws chatter) a few days after her puppy shots. She has now had these types of seizures once a month at least for her entire 12 years. I switched her to a raw & dehydrated food diet and cut out all the shots, chemicals and household toxins. This helped some. The only thing that has made a reduction in the frequency of the seizures is CannaPet and CBD oil. She went from having several bad episodes a month (sometimes 2-3 a week) to having no seizures for three or four months at a time. They are always worse in the fall/start of winter. Over vaccination can lead to a lifetime of medical problems!

Posted by: jcnick34 | October 31, 2018 8:05 AM    Report this comment

My two yr old mini poodle exhibited her first mile seizure in Sept 1993. Had a few sporadic episodes less and less frequent. The following year she had a mild one in Sept, followed by several more, becoming less frequent as time went on. The following summer I read on dog mailing list that vaccines could be the source of seizures. Just in time!! I had been allowing her to be vaccinated both previous Augusts, and the seizures kicked in Sept. Studied the issue and decided against annual vaccines. No more seizures. Since then, none of my dogs have been vaccinated more than once after the 1 yr booster. I boycott vets that recommend boosters more often than every 7 yrs.

Posted by: Lambchop | October 31, 2018 6:33 AM    Report this comment

"The post-ictal stage can include a deep sleep that lasts several hours to an entire day, confusion, and abnormal behavior, including ravenous hunger or complete anorexia, dilated pupils, and in some cases, blindness that will resolve. Your dog may be disoriented for a short time, but this period is otherwise not dangerous."

I would qualify this somewhat; I had a dog with seizures, and his post-ictal confusion was severe enough that if I went out of his sight and came back, he did not know who I was. Once he came back to himself he was fine, but people need to be aware that the confused dog may bite.

Posted by: ccrow | October 30, 2018 12:05 PM    Report this comment

I'm sorry to say that I have to agree with the other comment about the recommendation of the Purina veterinarian diet to control seizures. Purina is simply awful. Also the complete omission of CBD oil or an all raw diet excluding unhealthy carbs. The use of melatonin is also very helpful in dealing with seizures, especially during the night. We adopted an older dog last year. He is a 100lb golden retriever/yellow lab mix that was on Phenobarbitol at the time we adopted him. We were told he was a "stray" (dumped) brought to the humane society and that his rescuers had witnessed him seizing. He was diagnosed by the HS vet as having epilepsy because they could not find another reason for his condition. Another family adopted him prior to us and returned him to the HS 48 hours later because he had a seizure at their home and they reacted by rushing him to an emergency animal clinic, ran up a huge bill$ and left with the same diagnosis. We adopted him a few weeks later and had him checked by our own vet. We were advised to keep him on the pheno. He did not have the more common side effect of sedation, but rather became agitated especially while on our daily walks. He also was constantly hungry, panting, drooling and whined 24/7 while taking this drug. I will also add that he never had a seizure since coming home with us....never. Knowing that his liver would pay the price down the road, we decided to wean him off of the drug. In the 6 months it took to wean him completely, he never seized or since being off of it altogether. He has been completely weaned for 11 months. We believe his seizures may have been caused by extreme stress of being abandoned twice in his previous life. He also came with a pretty severe case of separation anxiety which he has recovered from about 90%. He still has an anxiety episode now and then but they are much less severe and we now know how to deal with it.

Posted by: SueW | October 30, 2018 12:00 PM    Report this comment

As a breeder who has extensively studied seizures (NOT epilepsy) in Australian Shepherds, the overwhelming empirical evidence indicates that seizures in our breed are more likely caused by toxins. Unfortunately when an Australian Shepherd shows up at a traditional vet office with seizures, they immediately diagnose epilepsy and prescribe traditional steroids and anti-seizure medication. If in fact the seizures have been caused by something in the environment (i.e, fabric softener, scented candles, vaccines or medications) the anti-seizure medications have little or no effect. Over time these dogs are given larger and larger doses and eventually die of liver failure from the meds. If your dog has a seizure FIRST look at environmental causes. Identifying and removing these causes will have an immediate effect and your dog will likely never seize again. Keep in mind the rate of epilepsy in humans is 4%. A world-renowned canine epilepsy researcher from Belgium estimates that the rate is 1% in the dog world of diagnosed epilepsy. Based on the number of dogs being treated in the U.S. for epilepsy you would assume that the number of dogs here with epilepsy is out of control. What you have is specific breeds that are sensitive to elements in our environment and react to those elements by seizing...this is NOT epilepsy..there is a difference.

Posted by: stonepine | October 30, 2018 11:03 AM    Report this comment

I see that this is an older article. Since then, with the acceptance of marijuana as a medical aide, it has been found that a tincture of marijuana can immensely help dogs with seizures.

My 14-year old Pekingese has seizures, and was unable to take diphenhydramine because she has liver disease. We live in the state of Washington, where marijuana is legal. Kita’s wonderful veterinarian told me that while she could not prescribe marijuana, that they had found that it could be very helpful in cases like Kita’s.

I immediately went to buy some, and it has worked serious miracles for Kita. Two drops of a tincture containing both CBD and THC given morning and night, and she has no seizures at all. A plus is that it also makes her appetite better - dogs evidently get the “munchies” as well!

Posted by: Deborah Nelson | October 30, 2018 10:41 AM    Report this comment

One of my dogs had disseminated Vally Fever (Coccidioidomycosis) a fungal infection in the soil in the southwest. This affected his central nervous system which caused cluster seizures. He was on phenobarbital for a while which brought the seizures under control. We tried a number of valley fever meds and the only treatment that works for this type of valley fever is fluconazole because it is the only one that will penetrate the blood/brain barrier. If you have a seizure dog in the southwest please have it checked for valley fever. My dog lived for 11 years on the fluconazole and had a happy energetic life. I hope this is helpful to someone.

Posted by: Booply | October 30, 2018 10:30 AM    Report this comment

I feel WDJ is lowering its standards. No mention at all of taurine supplements, raw diet nor CBD oil all of which are proven to help seizure dogs. Yet Purina who continues to cause death with its food and jerky treats gets recommended! Truth About Pet Food website has particulars about a class-action lawsuit filed against Purina's Beneful dog food and jerky treats

Posted by: cndaurora | October 30, 2018 10:20 AM    Report this comment

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