A very disturbing and far too common ailment—more so in dogs than in cats—is the seizure. Specifically, epilepsy or epileptiform seizures. If you have never seen a dog have a seizure, panic sets in quickly to the point that you become quite convinced that your pet is going to die. Epilepsy is not the only cause of seizures, but does seem the most common. It also is the one cause of seizures with no clear reason why it is happening.
Other causes of seizures include poisons, toxins, diseases your pet could be born with or acquire later in life, changes in blood sugar, hormones or electrolytes. These all need to be ruled out so that proper treatment can begin.
Epilepsy is called idiopathic epilepsy, meaning we don’t know what caused it. There are other terms like status epilepticus, which describes an essentially constant seizure—an emergency situation requiring immediate medical attention. Thank goodness this is hardly ever the case when dogs experience an epileptic seizure! Grand mal is the name for a full-blown—what you think of when you think of seizure—seizure. Petit mal describes an ‘absent seizure.’ Tonic/clonic is the term for the fullblown, muscle-wrenching, whole-body clamp-up of the grand mal seizure. An absent seizure is one without the tonic/clonic part—just a phase out, so to speak. It is quite uncomfortably clear when you see a grand mal seizure. It is unsure whether pets have petit mal seizures because how would you ever know if they even had one? Pets can have what is referred to as a ‘focal seizure,’ though, where a specific location on the body experiences seizure activity. Like I said, no fun for the dog or the owners.
An epileptiform seizure is essentially an electrical storm of nightmarish proportions in the brain. When this occurs, the dog will stiffen and fall over, contracting every muscle in its body. This then progresses to rhythmic contractions of the limbs and jaws. Most often, the dog will lose control of its bladder and maybe the bowels, as well. After the seizure itself subsides, there is a third phase (the post-ictal phase). This is the dog recovering from the seizure. He’ll be ‘foggy’ or ‘out of it,’ and may just lay there, staring blankly. A lot of dogs snap right out of this phase and go back to normal in what seems like no time, leaving you wondering what the heck just happened. Although dogs may cry out during a seizure, they are considered unconscious and therefore, not in pain. I know that is a hard thing to convince an owner of when it happens.
So how do you know if your dog is epileptic? There is nothing that really tells you. You have to find out everything it is NOT, and then blame it on epilepsy. That’s what makes it idiopathic. Couple that with the fact that you have to be present for the seizure to be able to describe it to your vet, and you can see clearly that other tests will need to be done to figure out the true cause of the seizure activity. Your pet could seize while you are at your son’s hockey game, and you may never know it save for a wet spot in the kitchen.
Of course, you could definitively track the brain activity with an EEG, to diagnostically witness a seizure, but that just never happens. If you suspect your dog had a seizure, or more than one, you will need to describe that to your vet. The normal course of events would be to take a blood test to check for other abnormalities. With epilepsy, the tests usually come back unremarkable. Checking the thyroid level may be in order if some other symptoms suggest that route. Of course, an MRI would be ideal, but sometimes not realistic for some pet owners. Many dogs may have a seizure or two and never have another as long as they live. Others start and need to be treated right away. It’s good to keep a calendar of seizure activity to see if there is any kind of pattern to it. Most seizures seem to occur, oddly enough, at rest. Your vet will educate you on the management of epilepsy.
And therein lies the only good thing about idiopathic epilepsy: In most cases, it is completely manageable—relative to other management diseases like diabetes, for instance. Most owners with epileptic dogs become experts at predicting a seizure by noticing what their dog’s pre-seizure behavior is. The same owner who six months earlier was hysterical—and rightly so—at the first seizure, can be pretty nonchalant about the 20th one. Shaky is going to have a seizure, they’ll say, and sure enough, it happens.
The goal in management is control: less seizures (or no seizures), less severe ones, and decreasing the time it takes to snap out of them. So if your pup is unfortunate enough to have idiopathic epilepsy, feel good that you can help them live a long and fun life, with a little extra help from your vet.