Witnessing your pet have a seizure is one the of the most frightening things you can experience as a pet owner. Understanding the reasons pets have seizures and what to do if your pet has a seizure can help prepare pet parents if a seizure were to occur.
There are two types of seizures. Seizures are classified as either focal (partial) or generalized (grand mal). Grand mal seizures affect both sides of the brain and the entire body. This type of seizure generally causes the pet to lose consciousness, fall over and become stiff, and the legs paddle or twitch and shake. Pets also may salivate, urinate or defecate on themselves and appear disoriented for several minutes after the active seizure. While it can seem like a long time has passed if your pet is having a seizure, most grand mal seizures last about 30 seconds up to about three minutes.
A focal or partial seizure affects only a small part of the brain. These seizures may affect only one limb, one side of the body or the face. The pet may or may not lose consciousness. A “chewing gum” fit is one example of a focal seizure. Other examples include snapping at the air for no apparent reason (fly biting) and spinning in circles (though a dog chasing his tail is still normal!).
There are several causes of seizures in dogs and cats. When diagnosing seizures in pets, veterinarians pay particular attention to the pet’s age when they have their first seizure to help find the cause. In animals less than one year of age the biggest concerns are infections, congenital abnormalities such as liver shunts, ingestion of toxins or low blood sugar, especially in very small toy breed puppies.
In dogs one to six years of age the most common cause of seizures is epilepsy, an undefined seizure disorder where the cause of the abnormal brain activity is unknown. For these pets all other causes of seizures have been ruled out. For pets who have their first seizure at later than six years of age the largest concern is a brain tumor.
Signs of a impending seizure may include a period of warning. During this time the pet may appear worried, dazed, stressed or frightened. Many pet owners have noticed their pet being more “clingy” in the hours leading up to a seizure. Seizures can occur anytime of day or night. It is important not to put yourself in danger of a seizing pet. Your pet is having involuntary jaw motion and may bite you without knowing.
For most pets, the seizure has come and gone before you can get them to the veterinarian, and an isolated seizure is not considered an emergency. However, if your pet is having seizure activity for more than three minutes or one seizure rapidly after another, this is considered status epileptics and is an emergency (i.e. drop what you are doing and rush to the vet).
Once you are at the vet and your pet is stable the veterinarian will perform a complete physical exam and ask a lot questions about your pet’s history such as “How long did the seizure activity last, did he lose control of urine or bowels?” and “Is there any chance of getting into any toxins?”
Your veterinarian will also perform routine blood tests to help rule in or rule out toxin exposure, low blood sugar and other causes of seizures. You veterinarian may also recommend referral to a neurologist for a brain CT or MRI, especially if your pet is older than six years old.
Seizures always look scary and the causes vary, but most can be treated.
Your veterinarian may or may not recommend anti-seizure medication. Treatment is based the cause of the seizures, how severe the seizures are and how often they occur. Treatment to control epilepsy is generally well tolerated, and the prognosis is good. Remember to contact your veterinarian if you suspect any seizure activity.