There can’t be many things more distressing and terrifying than witnessing your dog having a seizure – particularly if it is the first time. However, it can sometimes be confusing to ascertain whether what you’re seeing is a true seizure or not. So let’s discuss how to recognize a seizure, from common signals to behaviour.

What is a seizure?

Firstly, I will briefly explain what a seizure is. The brain is made up of hundreds of thousands of nerves, which all communicate with each other by passing electrical impulses back and forth to create messages to send to other parts of our body. These messages may tell our limbs to move, or our bladder to empty, or they may tell us that we are feeling hot, or cold, or in pain.

When a pet (or a person) has a seizure, something goes wrong with the coding of these messages, causing a “short circuit” effect. So confused and scrambled messages get sent from the brain to the rest of the body. This is usually a temporary effect and lasts just a short time before everything goes back to normal. 

Seizures can be generalised (also known as “grand mal” or “tonic-clonic” seizures) or localised (also known as “petit mal” seizures). Localised seizures will affect just one part of the body, and they can be quite difficult to recognise, even for veterinary professionals. So for the purposes of this article, we will focus mainly on generalised seizures. 

Common signs of a seizure

Here are the most common features of a seizure:

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  • Seizures will most often start when your dog is relaxed or sleeping (it is a common misconception that seizures are often caused by stress – it is much more common for them to happen at rest)
  • Your dog will fall over on their side and lose consciousness; if your dog is still awake and responding to you, then they are most likely not having a seizure
  • First, their neck and legs will stretch out and become stiff, then they will start performing a repetitive movement. Most commonly paddling their limbs, but they can also open and close their jaw, or have all over body shaking
  • Seizures most often only last for a short period of time (around 30 seconds to two minutes on average)
  • During a seizure, it is common for them to lose control of their bowels and bladder, so they may wet or soil themselves
  • They may salivate profusely or foam at the mouth
  • After a minute or two, the repetitive movement will stop and then they will slowly come around. They will likely be quite sleepy and disorientated for a while. It may take them a little while to be able to stand up and walk around and they will likely be confused, restless or wobbly for a few hours. 

When isn’t it a seizure?

Some other events that may be confused with a seizure, can include normal sleep movements (some dogs will have quite active dreams, and can appear to be running or barking in their sleep!); tremors (can be due to a genetic condition, or toxin ingestion) or episodes of pain – but in these other cases, you will usually be able to wake your dog if you try to and get them to respond to you, which will not be the case with a true seizure. 

What should I do?

If you suspect that your dog is having a seizure, the best thing to do in the short term, although it is counter-intuitive, is to leave them alone. Any stimulation (such as light or touch) can prolong the seizure, so it is best to turn the lights off, don’t make too much noise and don’t touch them. The urge to comfort your dog will be strong; but your dog will not be aware of anything, so you comforting him will make no difference to him and may make things worse. 

It is a good idea, if possible, to get a video of the episode. This will help your vet establish exactly what is going on. It will also be helpful if you are not completely sure if what you are seeing is a seizure; if your vet can see a video of the episode, they will be able to quickly confirm. It would also be helpful for your vet to know how long the episode lasted, so it is also worth timing it wherever possible.

When should I get help?

As soon as the episode has finished (or, straight away if the seizure is lasting more than about 5 minutes), call your vet and get an appointment. Even though your dog will probably have stopped seizuring by the time you get to the vets, it is still important for your vet to investigate and try to establish the cause and start some treatment if necessary. 

And when is it an emergency?

Any seizure that is lasting more than 5 minutes or so can be very dangerous to your dog (as dogs that are seizuring cannot control their body temperature, so after a while they start to overheat, which can cause brain and organ damage), so if the seizure isn’t stopping, bring your dog to the vet straight away and call to let them know that it is an emergency and you are on your way. 

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Now that you know how to recognise a seizure, you are probably interested to know what causes them and how we go about treating them.  We will discuss that in the next article, so stay tuned!

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