You’re relaxing on the couch while your dog sleeps soundly beside you. All of a sudden, he looks up at you with a glazed appearance, and his legs start to stiffen. He falls on his side; his jaw starts chattering and his legs start paddling. It lasts for less than a minute, although it feels like an eternity. When it’s over, he is panting and out of breath and heads unsteadily for the water bowl. What just happened? Based on these signs, it is likely that your pet just had a seizure, a symptom of brain dysfunction.
The best thing you can do for your pet during a seizure is to stay calm, protect him or her from injury by falling off of furniture or down stairs, and then call your family veterinarian. If your pet has a seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes or her or she has multiple seizures in one day, you should seek urgent veterinary care.
There are different types, but most people associate seizures with the signs of a generalized seizure (also known as a grand mal seizure): falling down, paddling, drooling and loss of bowel or bladder function. Another common type is a focal seizure. Though signs can vary, there is often twitching of one part of the body or face and sometimes the pet loses consciousness.
Considerations that help us determine the most likely underlying cause are: the age of onset; if the pet is normal between seizures; progression of other signs not associated with the episodes; possibility of exposure to a toxin; and time since the last seizure occurred. Your family veterinarian or veterinary neurologist will obtain a thorough history from you about your pet’s condition, so it can be very helpful to have a seizure diary which shows the dates and times, as well as a description of each episode.
In diagnosis of pets with seizures, a complete general physical examination and neurological examination will be performed. Oftentimes this is followed by a recommendation of routine blood work and sometimes special blood or urine testing. Additional testing can include x-rays or ultrasound depending on the age of your pet. The gold standard for imaging the brain is an MRI. In pets where there is concern for structural disease in the brain (such as a brain tumor, stroke, or malformation), an MRI is often recommended. For quality MRI images to be obtained, pets must be placed under general anesthesia, which adds to the cost and possible risks of MRI. A spinal tap and cerebrospinal fluid analysis is often the last piece of the puzzle in a complete seizure work-up. This test is used to look for evidence of inflammation in the brain (encephalitis) and some forms of cancer.
When choosing whether to start your pet on an anti-seizure medication, there are many factors to consider. Your veterinarian will discuss available options along with the pros and cons of each medication.
Typically, pets with seizures require lifelong therapy. If on anti-seizure medication, your pet will need to have blood work and therapeutic drug monitoring performed. Any changes in dosing or frequency should be guided by your veterinarian. Alternative therapies including dietary changes, acupuncture, and plant-based remedies, though few of these are well-studied treatments. Consultation with a veterinarian trained in these treatments is ideal to avoid potentially harmful alternative therapies.
For consultation with our Neurologist, Amy E. Fauber, DVM, MS, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Surgeons – Small Animal, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, ask your family veterinarian for a referral.