Seizure disorders in dogs are more common than you would think, so it is important to be able to recognize them, and what can cause them. In general, a seizure refers to involuntary movement associated with neurologic (brain) activity that is firing at an abnormally fast rate. What does that look like? You may see shaking, tremors, involuntary elimination, and sometimes falling over and/or stiffening of the legs and arms. Most seizures last only a minute or two, but they can persist or recur in clusters. Overheating is the most immediate problem that can result from a severe seizure. If a seizure goes on for more than a few minutes, you can cool your dog down with a moistened towel (with room temperature water) applied to the feet and ears.
Seizures due to toxins (for example eating snail bait, or overdosing on medication), can be harder to control and will usually require emergency medical intervention to stop the seizure and counteract the toxin. Knowing if your pet may have ingested such a toxin is important, and bringing any packaging or containers along with you to the emergency hospital is a good idea to ensure the most immediate remedy possible, and to avoid other problems such as kidney or liver damage.
Many times seizures are related to an inherited disorder commonly referred to as idiopathic epilepsy. Typically these seizures are first noticed at about 1-5 years of age, and can be associated with all breeds and mixed breed dogs. Idiopathic epilepsy in cats is rare. Seizures can also be due to metabolic disorders such as kidney or liver disease, congenital liver or heart shunts, or problems in the brain, including infection as well as cancer in some cases. Your veterinarian will need to run some tests, examine your pet and evaluate your pet’s history in order to help you determine the cause.
If your dog has been diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, most of the other causes have been ruled out. If the seizures happen frequently or are more severe, you may be asked to consider using anti-seizure medication to control (but not completely eliminate) the seizures. Some of the more common medications used for seizure control are barbiturates like phenobarbital or potassium bromide, and they may also have side effects. If you do decide to use medication to control the seizures, your veterinarian will need to check lab work regularly to ensure that you are giving an effective dose without long term liver damage. You will also likely be administering this medication on a regular basis, long term.
Idiopathic epilepsy is more common than you might think. Luckily, it is typically not a life threatening condition. Here is a link for more information on epilepsy, but if you think your pet is having seizures, please talk to your veterinarian as well.