Epilepsy in dogs
25th March, 2022
Having a dog with epilepsy can be a really worrying experience for a pet owner. Particularly when you’re watching your beloved family friend having a seizure. That’s why we’ve put together this short guide to help answer the most common questions owners ask about epilepsy in dogs. Hopefully it should put your mind at ease that your faithful hound will be able to live with this condition and lead a healthy, happy life.
Being knowledgeable about potential health conditions is important. But what is just as essential is choosing the right pet insurance. Here at Purely Pets, we’re always looking for ways to help you find the right cover for your trusty pal.
What is canine epilepsy?
Similar to human epilepsy, it’s a condition affecting the brain that causes your pet to have repeated seizures. It is one of the more common long-term neurological disorders among dogs and is estimated by the Blue Cross animal charity to affect about four in every 100 dogs in the UK.
In most cases epilepsy is a disease that will affect a dog throughout their life. Although, just because your canine has suffered a one-off seizure, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have ‘true’ epilepsy. Even otherwise healthy dogs could have one or two unexplained seizures in their lifetime.
Epilepsy usually develops in dogs between six months and six years of age. That’s when a dog who is going to develop epilepsy will invariably have their first seizure.
If your dog is having seizures and they are much younger than, or very much older, then the chances are it might not be due to epilepsy. They may well be having fits for some other reason. That’s why having pet insurance is so important because a speedy diagnosis is vital in these situations.
What causes epilepsy in dogs?
Unfortunately, there may well be no clear cause for a dog’s epilepsy. There can be any number of different underlying diseases or conditions that can cause a pet to develop epilepsy. In general, seizures are classified by vets in one of three ways:
- Structural – This is where an underlying cause can be identified in the brain. For example, a head trauma, a stroke, or a brain tumour.
- Idiopathic – This is where no underlying cause can be identified. In some cases, a genetic predisposition to epilepsy is presumed, particularly if the dog’s parents have also suffered from epilepsy. But often the cause of the condition remains unidentifiable.
- Reactive seizure – This is caused by temporary changes affecting the brain such as those produced by high blood pressure, low blood sugar, kidney or liver failure, or when toxins have been ingested.
Are some dog breeds more prone to seizures and epilepsy?
In terms of idiopathic epilepsy, it does seem genetics plays a role. Certain breeds of dog as well as certain breed lines appear to be more prone to epilepsy. Although scientists believe inheritance is likely to be complex involving several genes and environmental factors.
This is an important factor to consider if you’re thinking of getting a dog whose parents have had epilepsy. Or if you’ve got a young dog with epilepsy and you’re considering whether to breed from them. Unfortunately, that might not be the best idea because their offspring might also be more likely to have epilepsy in the future.
The following dog breeds do seem to be more prone to seizures and idiopathic epilepsy:
- Belgian Tervuren
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Shetland Sheepdog
Although many other breeds such as Bernese Mountain Dog, Poodle, Saint Bernard and Border Collie also show a predisposition.
If you have questions about this or any other pet health-related matter, Purely Pets policyholders have access to our 24-Hour Vet Helpline. Just a simple call to our veterinary professionals could help put your mind at rest.
What are the signs that a dog may be suffering from epilepsy?
When your dog has just had a seizure for the first time, you’ll probably be left feeling alarmed and even a bit scared. Seizures can affect dogs in a variety of different ways but common symptoms include:
- Running in circles.
- Vacant expression and not responding to your voice.
- Falling to the floor, instead of lying down as normal.
- Twitching and trembling.
- Stiffening of the leg and neck muscles.
- Going completely unconscious
- Eyes rolling back in their head.
- Drooling or frothing at the mouth.
- Paddling of the limbs.
- Biting or uncontrollable chewing.
- Urinating or defecating uncontrollably.
- Staring blankly, but remaining standing.
Before the seizure happens, they may also appear more anxious, frightened or dazed. As if they can sense the seizure is about to happen.
It can be difficult both for owners and medical staff to tell the difference between seizures and other health problems. So, noting down exactly what happened, or ideally taking a video, can really help a vet provide an accurate diagnosis.
A diagnosis of epilepsy is usually arrived at by ruling out all other causes of seizures. When you take your dog to the vet they will want to get a thorough medical history and perform a physical examination. This will be followed by diagnostic testing such as blood and urine tests and X-rays. Additional tests such as an MRI may also be recommended, depending on the initial test results.
The three main things to watch out for are loss of voluntary control (such as convulsions), attacks that begin and end suddenly, and attacks that appear very similar each time.
That said, not all seizures involve convulsions. Some involve twitches, blinking, salivation, or other behavioural changes.
Most epileptic fits happen quite suddenly without warning, last a very short time, and stop by themselves. While injuries can happen during seizures, most dogs don’t hurt themselves and might not even need a trip to the vet (unless epilepsy hasn’t already been diagnosed).
What should I do if my dog has a seizure?
When your dog is having an epileptic fit then it’s important to do the following.
- Stay calm. Your pet will not be suffering any pain. In fact, they’re probably not even aware of what’s going on.
- The safety of you and your pet has to be your number one priority. Make sure the area around them is clear so they can’t hurt themselves.
- If possible, turn off the lights, draw the curtains and turn off any radios or the TV. Overstimulation of the senses can make the fit last longer.
- Unless they’re in real danger, don’t try to move your pet while they’re having a seizure. You’re more likely to hurt yourself or them.
- Never put anything in your pet's mouth, including your hands. Indeed, try to avoid the head area as they may accidentally bite you.
- Don’t try to hold your dog down or cuddle them – just let the seizure run its course.
- When the seizure has ended, give your dog plenty of time to recover in a quiet spot. Be aware they may be disorientated and can potentially bite or act out of character. By all means give them reassurance if they want it, but otherwise try not to over stimulate them.
- Try to take a note of how long the seizure lasted or otherwise record what happened to help your vet with diagnosis.
If you want further guidance on what to do if your pet has a seizure then this video from PDSA is a must-watch.
While short seizures may not be an emergency, you should still contact your vet. Particularly if your dog hasn’t had a seizure before. A trip to the vet may also be warranted if your pet is showing other signs of illness. For example, if they’re off their food, vomiting, suffering from diarrhoea, or just a bit listless. The seizure might be part of a more serious illness.
Another important matter to keep in mind is if you think they’ve eaten something they shouldn’t have, such as something toxic around the home or garden. From artificial sweeteners such as Xylitol to common household plants there are many substances that could cause harm to your dog. So, get to an emergency vet right away!
As well as arranging insurance for pets, our team also puts together helpful guides on issues that might affect your pooch. For example, we wrote this recent guide to xylitol poisoning in dogs that’s a must-read if you want to protect against this surprisingly common danger.
How to keep an eye on your dog's seizures
If your dog has had a seizure then it can be very useful to keep a diary to help with any future diagnosis and treatment. Observing the seizure carefully could give vital clues and provide the key to treatment. Or let you and the vet know how the treatment is progressing. Often treatment plans may need to be tweaked over the course of a dog’s lifetime.
In particular, what were the first signs a seizure was about to happen? Were they doing anything in particular before the seizure started? At first, was one side of the body or a particular limb affected? What sort of movements did your pet make during the seizure? Were they shaking and chewing?
While most seizures last from only a few seconds to one or two minutes, timing the seizures will help you to be sure of its length. Take a note of the exact time and date it occurred. Do the seizures seem to be developing, or getting more frequent or worse?
By keeping an accurate record you’re far more likely to be able to pinpoint things. While a short fit between 30 to 60 seconds may feel like an eternity and will be very upsetting, it shouldn’t harm your dog.
But be aware there are particular types of seizure which pose a high risk to your dog's health. These can be life-threatening and need to be treated as an emergency. These are:
- Cluster seizures – Where they experience two or more seizures in a 24-hour period.
- Status epilepticus – Where they experience seizures longer than five minutes. Or two seizures where the dog hasn’t returned to ‘normal’ in between.
These types of seizures can lead to concerns about possible damage to the brain. During a prolonged seizure there’s also a risk that body temperature will rise and cause damage to other organs. In very rare circumstances, pets have been left in a coma following a seizure.
Having pet insurance at the ready means an early diagnosis and treatment to prevent seizures is more likely. And will help to limit the long-term impacts.
What can trigger my dog's epilepsy?
Keeping a diary is a good way to look out for potential triggers for your dog’s epilepsy. Identifiable triggers may differ from dog to dog, with some dogs having no obvious triggers.
Something commonly reported as a trigger by owners is stress. For example, car rides, thunderstorms, and visits to the vet to name just a few. While other owners report certain foods or medications acting as triggers.
As well as understanding triggers, it’s also useful to understand the signs that a seizure might be coming. For some dogs this could be really obvious, in that they might start pacing, becoming anxious or getting really clingy. You might just notice they do one particular thing before a seizure. This is the pre-seizure phase and once you recognise it, you’ll be able to take steps to help them cope.
Understanding what’s ‘normal’ behaviour for your dog is all part and parcel of being a good pet parent.
Can epilepsy be cured?
Epilepsy in dogs can rarely be cured. So, the best you can normally hope for is that with appropriate treatment your dog will maintain a seizure-free status without undue side effects from any prescribed medication. According to the Kennel Club this balance is achieved in between 15 to 30% of dogs.
Be aware that just because your dog is having treatment doesn’t mean they won’t have seizures. And if they are having the odd seizure then that doesn’t mean the treatment isn’t working. But those seizures shouldn’t be happening as frequently and shouldn’t be as severe as before. The goal of any treatment is always to improve your dog's quality of life.
But if your dog is epileptic and is having frequent fits, or they’re lasting a long time or it’s taking a long time for them to recover, then a change of treatment plan might be worth discussing with your vet.
Bear in mind that when beginning treatment, it may take some time to work. But your vet will discuss what treatment is best for your dog based on how frequently your dog is having fits and how severe they are.
There are a range of medications available. And not every dog with epilepsy will be prescribed medication. But if yours is then it’s very important that you do the following things:
- Give the medication at the same time every day or as directed by your vet.
- Give them the correct dosage.
- Continue their treatment and don’t stop without speaking to your vet first. Stopping treatment suddenly can cause your dog’s seizures to return.
Once started, medication will often need to be given for the rest of your dog's life. With regular health checks and blood tests to ensure the treatment is working and there are minimal side effects.
If your dog is prescribed medication to control seizures, then it’s likely they’ll gain weight. Because of this, your vet may recommend a special diet for your dog. Pet insurance from Purely Pets could help with the costs of these.
We’ve got some tips on how to help your dog keep to a healthy weight elsewhere on our site.
To help you monitor whether treatment is working effectively the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) has created a free app called Pet Epilepsy Tracker. Available from the App Store and Google Play it helps you track seizures on your phone.
If you want to find out more, the RVC has lots of useful research papers looking at epilepsy in companion animals. The RVC also has a really useful Canine Epilepsy Research Facebook page that can keep you up to date with new research and studies in this area.
What are the potential side effects of drug treatment for epilepsy?
The drugs used to treat epilepsy in dogs can sometimes lead to side effects. Particularly, just after treatment has started or if the dose has recently been increased. However, in the majority of cases these effects disappear or decrease as your dog's body develops a tolerance to the drugs.
In some cases, these side effects persist and must be monitored to make sure they don’t harm your dog's quality of life. If high doses of medication are needed to control epilepsy, then the risk of side effects can be higher. And may even affect liver function or cause liver damage.
So, for this reason it’s often recommended to have a regular blood test to check that everything is proceeding correctly. The treatment plan might need to be tweaked. For example, another drug may need to be given or one stopped and another started. Common side effects reported include:
- Mild sleepiness.
- Mild wobbliness in the back legs.
- Increased appetite and thirst.
- Increased urination.
- Weight gain.
Despite the potential side effects, it’s never advised to miss doses or stop treatment immediately. As this in itself can cause further seizures. Always speak to your vet before making any change to your dog’s medication.
In general, once your dog has been diagnosed with epilepsy and prescribed medication to control seizures then that’s something they’ll need to be given for the rest of their life.
Sadly, a very small number of cases don’t respond to medication. But be assured that most dogs diagnosed with epilepsy can still look forward to a long and happy life.
We’ve got more top tips for doggy first aid elsewhere on the blog.
Pet insurance to help with costs of treatment
Over time epilepsy treatment can become expensive. So, if you’ve recently got a dog then consider pet insurance now, before any signs of illness start. By acting now you’ll be assured of all the support you need to care for them.
Pet insurance from Purely Pets will give your four-legged friend the protection they need at a price to suit any owner’s budget. Depending on the level of cover you choose, vets’ fees for accidents, illness or both can be covered from between £1,000 and £15,000.