Seizures can be a scary thing to witness in our beloved pets. To help understand what is going on during a seizure, let’s start by talking about what is a seizure. Typically seizures are caused by an electrical disturbance in the brain. Our brains are comprised of neurons, which are tiny cells that run on electricity. If this electrical current gets disrupted it can cause the body to lose consciousness, control over movement and bowels resulting in a seziure.
There are different types of seizures. When most people think of seizures they think of a generalized (or grand mal seizure). This is where the pet will lose consciousness, have rapid arm and leg movements, and typically will urinate and defecate. This is the most serious form of a seizure. There are less extreme seizures call partial seizures. These can be mild and may go unnoticed. Some of these clinical signs include tremors, facial twitching, staring into space, light/fly biting, abnormal aggression or rage and even just brief episode of loss of consciousness.
Cluster seizures are more than one seizure within a 24 hour period. It is important to keep track of how many seizures your pet has. Status epilepticus is a seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes. There can be serious even life threatening consequences for this type of seizure or recurrent seizures where your pet does not fully recover in between them. During these prolonged seizures, it is possible to have a lack of oxygen to the brain, extremely high body temperature and high blood pressure, any of these things can lead to permanent brain damage or death. Because these are life threatening emergencies, your pet should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
There are different phases of a seizure. It can be helpful to recognize these phases when you have a pet with epilepsy (or a known seizure disorder). The first phase is the prodrome, this is the period before a seizure. Some pets in this phase will have a change in behavior or go to a specific spot in the house. It is possible to start to recognize this phase in some pets and administer medication to hopefully help prevent or lessen the severity of the seizure. The next phase is the aura phase. This is the initial signs of the seizure such as twitching or collapse. The ictus phase is the actual seizure, with loss of consciousness, paddling (rapid arm and leg movement) and possibly urination and defecation. The final phase is the post-ictal phase. This is the recovery stage, it can last anywhere from minutes to hours. Some patients can sleep for a long period after a seizure, others may have some temporary blindness or abnormal behaviors.
There are many different causes of seizures, age, breed and sex (boy or girl) can help your veterinarian determine possible causes in your pet. Your veterinarian will try to determine if the cause of the seizure is something going on in the brain or something outside of the brain. Things that can cause seizures that are directly in the brain included a brain defect, an injury, cancer, swelling or something like a stroke. Outside of the brain things like low blood sugar, liver disease, electrolyte imbalances, high body temperature, and toxins (such as poison, infection or medications) can cause seizures. While most of these things can affect animals at any age, as a pet ages things like cancer and strokes become more likely. There is a possibility that even after much testing the exact cause of a seizure disorder may not be found, this is called idiopathic epilepsy. It generally affects young adult dogs.
Determining the cause of seizures can be extensive and many cases expensive. Initially your veterinarian will perform an extensive physical exam. Bloodwork will help look for blood sugar and electrolyte abnormalities as well as liver and kidney issues. Further diagnostics such as advanced imaging, such as an MRI or CAT scan may be recommended. There are some things you can do at home to help your veterinarian work up your pets seizure. If possible try to record the seizure event. If you are unable to record, do your best to remember what happened right before, during and after the seizure. Timing the seizure is also a good idea as well. Try to think of any medications or toxins that your pet could have gotten into. This information can help your veterinarian provide the best care to treat you pet.
If your veterinarian determines that your pet’s seizures are severe enough to start medication, it is important to know that this is going to most likely be a lifelong medication. You should never stop seizure medication unless directed by your veterinarian. Seizures can be difficult to manage, it might take a bit to get the dosages and medications right for your pet. It is possible that your pet’s seizures may get to the point where medication is ineffective, this can be a heartbreaking situation.
While we can see seizure in all pets, true epilepsy is most common in dogs. Seizure disorders are rare in cats and other species, typically these are caused by more a serious underlying condition. If you are ever concerned that your pet has had a seizure, it is important they see your veterinarian as soon as possible. Again, if they have a seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes or continues to have multiple seizure close together, they need to be seen immediately.
Dr. Douglas received her undergraduate degree from Oregon State University and earned her DVM degree from the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University. Her special interests include exotics, zoology, and aquatics.