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A Serious Sign: Seizures in Dogs

Published on June 13, 2016

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Seizures are a Medical Emergency!

Witnessing a seizure in your pet can be a very frightening thing. While an owner generally perceives the seizure as lasting 5-10 minutes, in reality most seizures are over in less than 2 minutes.  A single seizure is rarely life-threatening.  However, because seizures can be a symptom of very serious disease, and because they frequently occur in clusters (multiple seizures in a short period of time), they should be considered a medical emergency.  If your pet is seizing for the first time, this warrants an immediate call to your veterinarian or the local emergency hospital.

What Is A Seizure?

Grand mal (whole body) seizures are generally easy to identify. The pet usually is lying on his or her side and paddling the limbs as if running. Most pets are unaware of your presence and not responsive when talked to. Many times they will urinate or defecate during the seizure. Once the paddling stops, there is a period of post-ictal confusion and it may take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours before your pet returns to normal.  Rarely, dogs will experience focal seizures where one limb or other portion of the body trembles rapidly, while the rest of the dog remains normal. However, the vast majority of seizure activity in pets is whole-body. If too many seizures occur too closely together, a dog is at risk of over heating from the muscle activity and may suffer brain damage from oxygen deprivation.

The Initial Seizure

A first time seizure in any pet is a medical emergency. Seizures can be secondary to inflammatory encephalitis, exposure to toxins, head trauma or metabolic disturbances like low blood sugar or uremia. In older pets, a frequent cause is the presence of a brain tumor.  It is important for your veterinarian to determine that your pet’s symptom truly was a seizure, and if so, to try to find the underlying cause.  Usually bloodwork and a urinalysis are the first diagnostic steps taken, as well as hospitalization of the patient for monitoring.  An intravenous catheter is usually placed during the monitoring period so that if seizure activity recurs, injections of anti-seizure medications can be given to control the severity of the seizure. Pets who continue to seize and those without identification of a clear underlying cause may be referred to a veterinary neurologist for advanced imaging (MRI or CAT scan) and a cerebral spinal fluid analysis.


Sometimes seizures have no identifiable cause. When seizure activity of this kind recurs episodically over weeks to months, a diagnosis of epilepsy is made.  Idiopathic epilepsy affects approximately 1% of dogs. It is more common in purebred dogs and can run in family lines.  Common breeds with an increased incidence are the Labrador and Golden Retriever, German Shepherd, Beagles and Poodles.  The seizures of epilepsy typically begin when the pet is between 1 and 5 years of age.

If your pet’s seizure activity is very intermittent, there may be no need for medication. However, if the seizures occur in clusters (2 or more seizures close together), are very lengthy or happen more often than once monthly, treatment may be warranted.  Each seizure tends to “prime the pump” for more seizure activity, and once this wind-up occurs, control can be much more difficult.  This is especially true in the large breed dogs.  Starting anticonvulsant medicines early after onset of epilepsy is the best option to successfully manage your pet’s disease. Most dog’s seizures can be controlled with daily dosing of a single oral medication or several given in combination.


Seizures can be the first symptom of very serious disease in your pet, and they require immediate attention from your veterinarian. If your dog is young and experiences repeat seizure episodes, epilepsy is a likely diagnosis. In most instances, this disease can be successfully controlled with medication, and your dog can expect to live a long, essentially normal life.

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