Epilepsy is a term used to describe repeated seizures or fits. Sometimes these fits can be one-off events, or several can occur in a short space of time. They may be quite infrequent or occur regularly.
What causes seizures?
Seizures can occur due to a number of causes. These can be split into two categories. ‘‘Intra-cranial’ causes – i.e. problems arising in the brain, such as brain tumours, trauma, infections or inflammation, or ‘extra-cranial causes’ ie. problems occurring elsewhere in the body that have a secondary effect on the brain, such as kidney or liver disease. In both of these situations a cause of the seizures can be found. However, the most common cause of seizures in dogs is ‘Idiopathic Epilepsy’. This means the exact cause is unknown – where patients have no detectable underlying abnormalities. This is thought to be at least partly a genetic condition but it is not fully understood.
What happens during a seizure?
There are 3 phases to a seizure:
- During the first phase or ‘aura’ – you may notice your dog acting differently. They may become clingy or hide away, sometimes they can be restless and whiny. This can last from minutes to a few hours, as if your dog knows something is going to happen.
- The seizure itself – typically lasts around 1-2 minutes. If a full/grand mal seizure occurs then your dog may collapse on to one side, and paddle and thrash with their legs. Sometimes they may toilet themselves and/or salivate. If this goes on longer for 5 minutes, then this is a prolonged seizure (called Status Epilepticus). You should contact your vet immediately as this is a life threatening issue and your dog will need intravenous anti seizure medication to bring them out of it. In some cases, a milder version may occur (petit mal). Here, rather than a full loss of consciousness, your dog may have an episode of being dazed or staring, shakey and trembling.
- In the final phase – shortly after the fit has occurred your dog may appear confused, wobbly and restless for a few hours.
Between seizure episodes dogs often appear completely normal.
What do I do if my dog is fitting?
If your dog is having a seizure, the first step is to stay calm. Make a note of the time and how long the seizure is going on for. Ensure that they aren’t able to injure themselves, or fall off the sofa etc. Otherwise try not to interfere or stimulate them – keeping the room quiet and dim may help. Be careful not to get bitten if you need to move them, as they are not in full control of their body. If this is their first seizure then it’s a good idea to contact your vet afterwards to let them know, and book in for a routine check up once they are recovered. If the fit goes on for more than 5 minutes your dog will need to be seen by a vet immediately as an emergency.
How is epilepsy diagnosed?
Firstly your vet will perform a thorough examination and take a clinical history from you. They will ask if your dog may have had any access to any toxins or any history of head trauma. Epilepsy usually occurs in dogs between the ages of 1-6 years old, so if they are older or younger than this when they first show symptoms then something else is likely to be causing the fits. To rule out other causes of seizures your vet will need to run some tests; these will include blood and urine tests, sometimes x-rays or an ECG. If no significant findings are found on these tests then sometimes referral for an MRI brain scan will often be recommended. A diagnosis of Idiopathic Epilepsy can be made when all other causes have been excluded.
How is epilepsy treated?
The general recommendation is for ongoing anti-epileptic medication to be started if your dog is having frequent seizures (i.e. more than one per month). This is also needed if they have had a cluster of seizures within a 24 hour period.
The goal of therapy is to reduce seizure frequency to a tolerable level – they will not stop seizures altogether. Medication must be given on a daily basis, for the rest of your dog’s life. Several anti-epileptic medications are available, the most commonly used is Phenobarbitol. If your dog doesn’t respond well to one type of medication, often a second drug is used in combination such as Potassium Bromide. It can take a few months to get the dose right, so they will need regular check ups. Blood tests are also recommended to monitor the levels of the drugs, as well as checking their liver function.