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Seizures are a pretty terrifying thing for any dog to experience. For owners, it can be equally as terrifying. One minute, you’re sitting there relaxing with your pup and the next they jump off the couch as if something feels weird and collapse into a seizure. Watching your pet have a seizure can make you feel helpless as a pet parent.
Seizures can occur at any age and for a number of reasons we will discuss in this blog. Unfortunately, older dogs are more likely to be affected by a seizure than younger dogs. But it can happen in any age group of dog depending on the cause. This blog will discuss why this is and what to do if you suspect your dog is experiencing a seizure.
Seizures are the most common neurological emergency in dogs. Sometimes referred to as “convulsions” or “fits,” they’re involuntary electrical disturbances that happen in the brain that result in a “misfiring” of neurons. This misfiring leads to abnormal twitching, shaking, and loss of consciousness and even loss of bowels.
Many old dogs may urinate, defecate, salivate profusely, or become fearful just before a seizure occurs. For our 10 yr old husky Jose who was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsyi, he will usually act a little ‘off’ and take a few steps away from us right before he senses a seizure coming on. He will lick his lips of try to calm himself with play bows that seem out of place for the moment right before a seizure occurs.
Most seizures last between 1 to 5 minutes and have a period before and after the seizure of abnormal behavior. Many dogs will seem ‘out of it’ after the seizure and lay there for a few minutes seeming to regain consciousness and the ability to use their body. The period of abnormal behavior after a seizure can last up to an hour or longer for very severe seizures.
Seizures are more common in certain breeds for reasons that are unclear though genetics are suspected. Commonly affected breeds include Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and border collies. However, any breed and age can be affected.
Although genetic makeup will play some role in which dogs develop seizures, many other factors are more likely to play a role in the development of seizures. Factors such as stress, nutrition, exposure to toxins, and disease can significantly contribute to any individual dog’s likelihood of experiencing a seizure or developing epilepsy in their life.
There are many reasons for seizures in dogs. Some common causes of seizures in old dogs are listed below. The most common cause of seizures in dogs over age 8 is brain tumors. It is important not just to assume that is the cause, though as older dogs are also prone to the following diseases, which can also cause seizures.
Red blood cells are very important to the delivery of oxygen to tissue in the body and when red blood cells are low it can cause something called anemia.
Diabetes is an endocrine disease where the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. Insulin is very important to the control of glucose and can lead to low blood sugar levels that may lead to seizures.
A variety of toxins can cause seizures in dogs to include dark chocolate, rodenticides, xylitol, ethylene glycol and more.
The kidneys and liver are very important organs that help prevent dangerous levels of compounds and metabolites from building up in our bloodstream.
Low blood sugar can occur due to many different reasons including diabetes, tumors and toxins and if severe enough can lead to seizures.
Brain tumors can affect various regions of the brain as well as neurotransmitters which can lead to seizures.
Serious infections can affect the brain tissue affecting the brains ability to function normally.
In rare cases, some autoimmune disorders can cause inflammation in the brain disrupting it’s normal functions.
Seizures are not all identical and can sometimes be easily confused with other events such as fainting or collapse. If you have never seen a dog have a seizure before, it can be hard to know if your pet is having one or not.
The most obvious symptoms of a seizure are the loss of consciousness followed by the pet becoming rigid with legs extended, then proceeding to violent chomping of the jaws and flailing of the limbs. They will often whine or vocalize and even have their head and neck stretched upwards.
In contrast, in an event such as fainting (also called syncope) the animal will lose consciousness but then appear limp. With fainting, any movements of the limbs will typically be slow and weak.
Seizures tend to have a period of time after the seizure where the dog acts abnormal and out of it. With fainting, dogs do not have a prolonged period of abnormal behavior and tend to recover more rapidly.
Regardless of which event you believe occurred, these are always causes for concern and you should call your veterinarian right away. Typically, your veterinarian will want to see them the same day.
Sometimes seizures are not as obvious and are ‘focal’ in nature. This may look like twitching and staring off into the distance for some dogs and not involve the whole body. If you notice these events in your dog, this is still important to talk to your vet about. Grabbing a video of what you are seeing can be helpful for your vet in any case.
Note the time when the violent portion of the seizure started and how long it lasted (this will be helpful for your vet)
There is a myth that dogs swallow their tongue during the seizure but this is NOT TRUE. Do not put your hands anywhere near their mouth or face during the seizure, you can suffer a severe bite wound. The animal has no control over their jaw movements during a seizure.
Keep your dog away from things that they could injure themselves on during the seizure. Sticking a pillow between them and the nearby dangerous object should be enough.
Any seizure of any duration is a reason to see your veterinarian, however, if they have more than one seizure in 24 hours or have a seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes, these are emergencies and you should be seen as soon as possible.
Consider having capture a video of the event. This can be helpful to a vet at times who may be trying to differentiate the seizures from fainting and vestibular events.
The treatment of seizures depends on the underlying cause. If the underlying cause is identified it makes treatment and management of the disease much easier for your veterinarian.
Many times a veterinarian will want to start with bloodwork and urinalysis to help rule out some of the causes mentioned above.
They will ask you questions about possible exposure to any toxins or medications that you may have in your home or in the environment outside.
Some pets if they have additional signs of concerns, may require additional testing. For example, to determine if a brain tumor is present, advanced imaging like an MRI is needed.
Knowing the cause and severity of the disease can also help with making decisions about the health of your pet. Some pets with more severe disease may need to be hospitalized to get the seizures under control. Others may just require some preliminary tests and then be sent home for monitoring. This will all depend on various factors such as severity, other signs of illness, preliminary findings and more.
Seizure medication is often used to treat seizures. Your vet will help you decide if seizure medication is warranted or not. This will depend on the suspected cause and frequency of the seizures.
Once your vet diagnoses and prescribes the treatment it is important to follow their advice and do not discontinue any medications without the direction of a veterinarian. Abruptly stopping a seizure medication in a older dog with seizures can worsen seizures for some pets.
Seizure medication is medication that a pet will be on for life unless guided by your vet otherwise. If you are worried about side effects of medications for dogs with seizures, always discuss with your vet or call a 24 hour ER hospital if it is after hours.
Some medications like phenobarbital are very good at controlling seizures but a pet can seem ‘loopy’ on them for the first few weeks until their body adjusts. Talking to your vet about what you are seeing at home can help them figure out if that is the case.
Do you have a dog that is having seizures? If you do, you are not alone! There are many veterinarians who can help you and your pet and help manage this disease. The prognosis varies greatly depending on the cause for the pet and degree of severity of seizures.
This blog was written to provide you with a simple understanding of some of the basics of seizures in dogs. It is not intended to be a replacement for veterinary care.
Welcome! We are so glad you are here! At SDR, we are firm believers that senior pets are the most inspiring animals in the world. And our mission is to help promote the needs of senior dogs and help pet parents create a life of health and happiness for their oldest canine friend.