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Epilepsy in dogs

by Shane Jackson M.A., Vet MB., MRCVS


Seeing your dog having an epileptic seizure can be an unpleasant and very worrying experience, especially if it has never happened before.  Even if there have been previous episodes and you are accustomed to the possibility of a seizure, one can still be shaken by the event.

Epileptic fits are the result of a ‘short-circuiting’ of the nerves in the brain, so that many nerves are stimulated at once.  This can result in quite violent body spasms.  Not all dogs which have seizures are epileptic; fits can happen for a number of reasons.  For example older dogs may have an underlying heart, kidney or liver condition, or there may be a tumour on the brain.  This last possibility is, thankfully, not all that common.  Traumatic injuries to the head can lead to fits in any age dog, as can infectious causes, such as viruses or bacteria.  Occasionally poisons, such as slug bait (metaldehyde) will cause a dog to fit.  In any of the above cases it is important to treat the underlying problem, if possible, and so eliminate or control the fits that way.

However, there are a large number of cases of true epilepsy in dogs where there is no underlying lesion in the brain or disease process in the body.  Such cases are termed primary, or idiopathic epilepsy and anti-epileptic drugs are the only way to control the problem.  Nerves have a threshold at which they are activated; above this threshold, there is no electrical activity, whereas below it a nerve ‘fires’ and a signal is transmitted.  It is thought that in a dog with primary epilepsy there is a lower ‘fit threshold’, i.e. the nerves are stimulated to conduct their electrical impulses more readily.

Dogs which suffer from primary epilepsy will usually have a fit when they are relaxed or asleep.  The severity of the fit is variable; it may be very mild and so not noticed at all by anyone.  Where signs are seen, the dog may collapse have spasms and paddle with its feet. This usually lasts only a few seconds, possibly up to two minutes, but most people who see this happening to their dog feel it lasts much longer.  During and after the fit, the dog is unaware of its surroundings and can react unpredictably. There is a danger that a normally placid dog will inadvertently bite.  Recovery is again variable, sometimes taking several hours, during which time the dog may be in coordinate, bumping into things, apparently blind, and pacing incessantly.  They may also be extremely hungry at this point.

The frequency of fits can be erratic.  When a dog has only one or two mild fits a year, then no treatment is usually given.  Obviously, if the attacks are more frequent and more severe, daily medication is required.  This will take the form of tablets, or occasionally liquid, and, in some cases, a combination drug is needed. The drug regime used in an individual dog is tailored to what best controls the fits in that dog.  In this way, most dogs are well controlled, but even so there may be an infrequent, usually less severe fit.

An emergency situation arises when a dog has several seizures one after the other.  This is called ‘status epilepticus’ and can be extremely dangerous for him.  In such cases, it is important to contact your vet quickly, as an intravenous injection needs to be given to your dog.

It is also important to contact your vet if your dog suddenly starts having an occasional fit.  Often, he has got over the seizure by the time of examination, but, as mentioned at the beginning, there are other reasons that a dog will fit, and these should be either ruled out or treated.  This may mean that blood samples, X-rays or other investigative procedures should be carried out.

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