Canine Epilepsy

Kelly Roper
Reviewed by Vet Clare Deming
Dog seizing

Canine Epilepsy is a chronic condition that affects a dog's brain. The illness is most notably characterized by a series of seizures that drastically limits a dog's control of motor functions.

What Happens During a Seizure

During a seizure episode, an affected dog will suddenly appear to go stiff, as a misfire of electrical impulses in the brain send mixed-up messages to the muscular system.

After this initial phase, which may last only a few seconds, the seizure progresses into uncontrollable muscle movements that may last a minute or more. During this time, a dog may shake uncontrollably, whine, paddle its feet, and even have uncontrolled bowel movements or urination as the muscles spasm.

Once this phase passes, the animal will generally lie quite still and dazed, eventually attempting to get up again. Most dogs recover from a seizure quickly, although it's not uncommon for a dog to remain slightly dazed and less functional for a day or two afterwards.

The onset of the illness is generally seen in dogs less than five years old, but once it begins, the seizures will persist throughout the animal's life.

Types of Epilepsy

According to the AKC Canine Health Foundation, canine epilepsy is divided into two types:

  • Primary Epilepsy, also referred to as idiopathic epilepsy, appears to have no structural cause and displays no obvious brain abnormalities when scanned. This form of the condition is believed to be hereditary.
  • Secondary Epilepsy, or structural epilepsy, is caused when there is damage or a malformation of the brain that triggers seizures. This can happen after an inflammatory brain condition, a stroke, head trauma, or it can be caused by a congenital brain disease or the growth of a brain tumor.

Are All Canine Seizures Epilepsy?

While it is tempting to say that any dog with seizures has epilepsy, seizures can be caused by numerous other medical conditions. These are called reactive seizures. Some of these causes can include:

  • Kidney failure
  • Liver diseases
  • Low blood sugar
  • Toxins
  • Low blood calcium
  • Heat stroke
  • Blood disorders

Diagnosis of Canine Epilepsy

If you think that your dog has a seizure for the first time, your pet will need to be evaluated by a veterinarian. Many times, your dog will act completely normal a short time after the seizure, but it is still important to have your pet examined to make sure no subtle neurologic abnormalities are present. Sometimes heart conditions, vertigo, or internal bleeding can cause your pet to collapse and these symptoms may be easily confused with a seizure.

If a physical exam is consistent with recent seizures, your veterinarian will likely recommend blood tests that will help to evaluate your pet for conditions that cause reactive seizures. If these tests are negative, your pet may have canine epilepsy. There isn't any test available to confirm a diagnosis of canine epilepsy. If your pet is over five years of age, has any other neurologic deficits, has severe seizures, or is in a high-risk breed, your veterinarian may refer you to a neurologist for more advanced testing, such as an MRI and/or spinal tap.

Treating the Disease

Not all dogs with canine epilepsy will require treatment. The need for treatment will be determined by the severity and frequency of the seizures. If your dog is having more than one seizure a month, or if the seizures suddenly worsen, your veterinarian will likely recommend treatment. For severe seizures or cluster seizures, your dog may need hospitalization to start with. For many dogs, oral medication is needed.

Medication

Veterinarians use several types of medications to control canine epilepsy. These can all cause some drowsiness or lethargy and include:

  • Phenobarbital is the most common drug prescribed for canine epilepsy. Periodic blood monitoring is necessary to make sure that the liver is able to handle the medication.
  • Potassium bromide has also been used for a long time for dogs to treat epilepsy. It is preferred for pets with liver disease, but will take a long time to reach effective blood levels.
  • Valium is often prescribed for rectal use for severe seizures at home. It is not typically used orally in dogs because it doesn't stay in their blood for long.
  • Gabapentin is a drug used to treat nerve pain, but may also have some anti-seizure effects. It is best used in combination with other seizure medications.
  • Levetiracetam is a newer seizure medicine that is being used more often in dogs. It is still more expensive than phenobarbital, but few side effects have been reported.
  • Zonisamide is another new seizure medicine that has had good success in treating seizures in dogs. A few cases of liver toxicity have been reported, but it appears to be very well tolerated for most dogs.

Monitoring

Dogs with canine epilepsy will need to be monitored closely at home. Keep a log of how often your dog has seizures. Try to record how long each seizure lasts and make notes about any unusual features of the seizure. Even those dogs that are on seizure medications may have some seizures. As long as these are not becoming more severe or more frequent, that is usually considered acceptable seizure control.

Your veterinarian may recommend blood level monitoring if your pet is taking phenobarbital or potassium bromide. This is a test to check how much of the drug is actually effective in your dog. Many dogs will adjust to the medication over time, and a change to the dose may be needed.

Consult Your Veterinarian

Since there is no cure for canine epilepsy at this time, managing the condition with medication is the only option. Dogs who have epilepsy have been known to live for years. However, this really depends on how severely an animal is affected with the illness. If the epilepsy is severe, you may also need to consider euthanasia. With that said, let your vet be your guide about the best way to deal with Canine Epilepsy, should the condition ever surface in your pet.

Canine Epilepsy