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Understanding Dog Seizures

Posted by Nicole Wanner, D.V.M. on

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As a veterinarian and a pet owner, I know how terrifying it can be to see your dog have a seizure. Dog seizures stem from abnormal electrical activity in the brain, which can occur due to epilepsy, toxin exposure, kidney disease, or other underlying conditions (1).

Fortunately, appropriate treatment from your veterinarian can control seizure episodes. This article provides an overview of causes, symptoms, treatments, and more to help you understand and manage your dog's seizures.

What Is a Seizure or Epilepsy?

A dog seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled burst of electrical activity in your dog's brain. Seizures in dogs can present in a variety of ways. Episodes can range from subtle changes in behavior to a dramatic loss of consciousness and full-body muscle spasms (2).

In contrast to a single seizure event, epilepsy is a disorder characterized by repeated seizures. Dogs with epilepsy can experience different types of seizures, including partial seizures, cluster seizures, and generalized seizures (also known as "grand mal" seizures).

Idiopathic epilepsy, or epilepsy with no identifiable underlying cause, often runs in families. This type of epilepsy is more prevalent in certain breeds, such as Belgian Shepherds, Border Terriers, Irish Wolfhounds, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Bernese Mountain Dogs (3).

veterinarian and dog

Can Dogs Have Seizures?

Dogs, just like humans, can have seizures. Seizures can occur in dogs of any breed, sex, or age. However, some dog breeds are more susceptible than others, and so are dogs with certain health conditions. Notably, seizures are different from muscle tremors and shivering.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs?

Seizures in dogs can occur for a variety of underlying reasons. Health issues for a dog with seizures may include head injury, liver disease, kidney disease, and exposure to toxic substances. Epileptic seizures are usually caused by genetics.

What Happens During a Typical Seizure?

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a "typical" dog seizure (3). The episodes can be subtle, frightening, or just odd. However, knowing the signs of a seizure can help you get appropriate treatment for your dog.

Some dogs exhibit a period of altered behavior before the seizure occurs, called the pre-ictal phase. Humans who experience seizures may refer to this phase as an "aura." Dogs in the pre-ictal phase may seem restless, hide, or become very still.

Symptoms your dog may exhibit during a seizure include:

  • Sudden change in behavior
  • Unresponsiveness to surroundings
  • Involuntary, repetitive movements affecting one part of the body (focal seizures)
  • Involuntary convulsions affecting the whole body (generalized seizures)
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Paddling the limbs
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Vocalizing

Following the seizure, dogs may enter a post-ictal phase characterized by confusion and disorientation. However, this phase is not always present, and some dogs immediately go back to normal (4).

If you're unsure if your dog's altered behavior is a seizure, record a video of the episode and bring it to your veterinarian.

veterinarian treating a dog

How to Help if Your Dog Has a Seizure

"My dog had a seizure." What are some things you can do to keep them safe? 

The first thing to do is remain calm. Move any furniture or objects that may harm your dog during the episode. If your dog is near a staircase or other hazard, carefully move them away by grasping a hind leg or pushing against their back.

Do not try to restrain your dog or put anything in their mouth. Restraining your dog's involuntary movements increases the risk of injury. Seizing dogs can also bite accidentally. Stay safe, and secure children and other dogs.

Turn down music, turn off lights, and take other steps to reduce environmental stimulation.

Keep track of the duration of the seizure. Most dog seizures are short, but episodes lasting more than five minutes (status epilepticus) require immediate veterinary attention (5).

Is a Seizure Painful or Dangerous for My Dog?

A seizure is not generally painful for your dog, even if their movements may look distressing. Dogs experiencing a generalized seizure are unconscious during the event. Crashing into objects, people, or other dogs during a seizure episode may result in pain or injury after the fact.

What Is Status Epilepticus?

Status epilepticus is a dangerous situation where a single seizure lasts more than five minutes, or where multiple seizures occur back-to-back (6). This condition is life-threatening and requires immediate veterinary attention. Permanent brain damage or death can occur if status epilepticus is not treated promptly (6).

If you need to transport a seizing dog, use a large blanket as a hammock to get them into your vehicle. Remember to stay clear of accidental bites, scratches, or kicks. Place an ice pack along your dog's spine to help control their body temperature.

corgi with veterinarian outfit

How is The Cause of Seizures Determined?

To determine the cause of seizures, your veterinarian will consider your dog's history, physical and neurological examination, and diagnostic test results. These tests may include blood panels, MRI or CT scans, and cerebrospinal fluid analysis (3). Epilepsy is generally a "diagnosis of exclusion," meaning that your veterinarian must rule out other causes of your dog's seizures.

How are Seizures Treated or Prevented?

The primary treatment for epilepsy in dogs is antiepileptic drugs (AEDs), such as phenobarbital or potassium bromide (7). These medications do not cure epilepsy but reduce the frequency and severity of seizures.

These traditional epilepsy medications work well for many dogs. However, some dogs do not respond, while others may experience side effects. In these cases, newer antiepileptic drugs or combined therapy may be appropriate.

Which Dog Breeds Are Prone to Seizures?

Dogs of any breed can be affected by seizures. However, some purebred pups may be more prone to seizures than others. This higher risk comes in the form of idiopathic epilepsy.

Idiopathic epilepsy is diagnosed in dogs that experience repeated seizure episodes with no clear underlying cause. The appropriate treatment strategy will depend on both the frequency and severity of your dog's seizures.

Researchers are still working to understand why epilepsy happens, but genetics are a key factor (8,9). Breeds prone to inherited forms of epilepsy include:

  • Beagles
  • Border Terriers
  • Irish Wolfhounds
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs
  • Keeshonden
  • Irish Setters
  • Belgian Tervurens
  • Siberian Huskies
  • Springer Spaniels
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • German Shepherds

Psychomotor Seizures

"Psychomotor" is an older term that's less common in recent years. It's not necessarily "wrong," but terms are frequently revised over time as scientists learn more about a disease. Additionally, human and veterinary medicine sometimes use separate vocabulary for similar conditions.

Other names for psychomotor seizures may include:

  • Temporal lobe seizures
  • Limbic seizures
  • Focal-onset seizures

Seizures happen due to uncontrolled waves of electrical activity in the brain. A temporal lobe seizure gets its name from the brain region where these rogue waves begin: the temporal lobes. These paired regions are found in both dogs and humans, with temporal lobe epilepsy being the most common form of epilepsy in people. It's unclear if temporal lobe epilepsy is a major seizure type in dogs (10).

veterinarian looking after a dog

Focal Seizures

Focal seizures happen when abnormal electrical activity stays in one area of the brain. This pattern differs from generalized seizures, where the abnormal activity spreads across multiple brain regions.

Focal seizures in dogs can present in a variety of unusual ways (11). Usually, the dog does not lose consciousness during these episodes. Instead, focal seizures involve repeated, involuntary movements of one or two body parts. "Fly-biting" is a classic focal seizure presentation involving the neck and jaw muscles. A "chewing gum" episode also involves involuntary motions of the jaw. Focal seizures can be as minor as repeated lip, ear, or eyelid twitches lasting a few minutes.

Focal seizures usually don't require treatment with antiepileptic drugs. However, a focal seizure can spread to become a generalized seizure in some dogs. In this case, your dog may benefit from medication. Talk to your veterinarian to build an appropriate treatment plan for your pup. If you're unsure if your dog's behavior is a seizure or if you're unsure what type of seizure they're having, taking a short video to show your vet can be helpful.

Atonic Seizures

Atonic seizures are a type of nonconvulsive or "petit mal" seizure (12). During an episode, the dog may suddenly lose muscle tone, collapse, or lose consciousness. Atonic seizures can be very short, lasting only a few seconds.

If your dog has collapsed suddenly but acted normal afterward, contact your veterinarian to find out why. There are multiple causes of sudden collapse in dogs other than a seizure. Other conditions that may cause collapse include:

  • Sudden drop in blood pressure (syncope)
  • Sleep attacks (narcolepsy)
  • Sudden muscle weakness while awake (cataplexy)

Absent seizures are another type of nonconvulsive seizure (13). They feature "spaced out" behavior where the dog does not respond to calls, touches, or commands. If you're concerned your dog is having seizures, visit your veterinarian.

Myoclonic Seizures

Myoclonic seizures feature sudden, shock-like head, body, or leg movements. The motion is caused by muscle contractions. Like any other seizure type, these jerky movements are involuntary: the dog can't control them.

Myoclonic seizures can affect just one muscle, a whole leg, or multiple body areas at the same time. This seizure type has been seen in several dog breeds, including Beagles, Basset Hounds, and Miniature Wire-Haired Dachshunds. In these cases, the condition is usually genetic. However, myoclonic seizures can have other causes.

A "myoclonic jerk" is not the same as a seizure. Healthy humans and dogs can experience random involuntary movements, such as when falling asleep. Talk to your vet if you're concerned about your dog's behavior. It may also be helpful to take a short video of the event.

veterinarian looking into a dog's health

Cluster Seizures

Cluster seizures are a dangerous type of seizure activity where multiple attacks occur within 24 hours (14). This condition is a medical emergency that requires immediate veterinary intervention.

Fortunately, most healthy dogs are unlikely to suffer from cluster seizures. Dogs diagnosed with epilepsy are at a higher risk, especially if their seizures are hard to control with medication (8). Still, it's crucial to know the signs of a "seizure emergency." Dog seizures are considered an emergency if:

  • There is a single seizure lasting longer than 5 minutes (status epilepticus)
  • Multiple seizures happen one after the other (cluster seizures)

In these cases, get your dog to the nearest veterinarian as soon as possible. You may need to move the dog while they are still seizing. If you're unsure how to proceed, ask the veterinarian's office to talk you through it.

Extended seizure activity is dangerous because it rapidly increases the dog's body temperature (hyperthermia). Like a high fever, this increase can cause internal organs to shut down if it goes on for too long. The risk of permanent damage or death increases the longer the seizures continue.

Seizures During Sleep

For dogs with epilepsy, some owners may notice the attacks occur during sleep. These nocturnal seizures also happen in humans; some people with epilepsy only have episodes while sleeping.

Seizures during sleep often occur during transition periods between sleep and waking. They can also happen when a dog dozes off during the day. In one study of epileptic dogs, 80% of owners reported their dog had seizures during sleep, while resting, or when waking up (15).

Why do your dog's seizures seem to happen around bedtime? Going from awake to asleep and back again requires complex reorganization of brain activity. Electrical patterns change when falling asleep and waking up, but also between light and deep sleep. These changes are normal and essential for rest. But in epileptic dogs, the brain is extra sensitive. Run-of-the-mill sleep signals can trigger seizures in dogs with epilepsy.

Dog Seizures vs. Syncope

If you're concerned your dog has seizures, syncope is another condition your veterinarian may discuss with you. Syncope is an episode of sudden unconsciousness and loss of muscle tone with rapid recovery (16). In other words, the dog faints and gets up quickly afterward as if nothing has happened.

Syncope and a seizure can be impossible to tell apart just by looking. A seizure is more likely if the dog's limbs move a lot or if the event lasts more than a few seconds. Dogs that go limp and fall down could have syncope, an atonic seizure, or something else.

Working with your veterinarian is crucial to correctly identifying the source of your dog's episodes. That way, your pup will receive the correct course of treatment. You can help by taking a short video of an attack and taking detailed notes.

veterinarian treating a dog for something.

Seizure vs. Stroke in Dogs

Seizures in dogs can also look similar to stroke, another serious condition. A stroke happens when there is a blockage of blood flow to the brain (17). Strokes are considered much more common in people, with fewer cases of dogs. However, research on dog strokes is ongoing.

In dogs and humans, strokes can result from blood clots (ischemic stroke) or broken blood vessels near the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). In contrast, seizures stem from unusual electrical activity in the brain.

Stroke symptoms in dogs depend on which region of the brain is affected. These symptoms can be impossible to tell apart from a seizure just by looking. Call our local veterinary office immediately if you're worried your dog is having a stroke.

Can Ear Infections Cause Seizures in Dogs?

Severe ear infections in dogs can cause neurological problems. However, ear infections are not a major cause of seizures in dogs. Most dog ear infections involve the visible outermost areas of the ear (otitis externa). The expected symptoms are scratching, head shaking, and dark discharge (18). However, neurologic signs can develop when the infection spreads to deeper ear structures (otitis media and interna).

Neurologic symptoms of severe ear infections may include:

  • Vestibular signs (persistent head tilt, difficulty walking, turning in circles)
  • Rapid eye movements while awake (nystagmus)
  • Horner's syndrome (drooping/paralysis on one side of the face)
  • Deafness

Up to 20% of dogs have ongoing ear issues, so consult your vet if you're concerned. Ear infections are more common in floppy-eared breeds like Cocker Spaniels and Basset Hounds.

Can Food Cause Seizures in Dogs

Generally, food itself does not cause seizures in dogs. However, dogs with epilepsy may be more likely to have an attack around mealtimes. But why?

Eating is a huge source of joy and excitement for dogs. Similar to falling asleep, emotional excitement causes changes in brain activity patterns. Usually, these changes are normal and don't cause problems. But in epileptic dogs, excitement about food can be enough to trigger a seizure.

Choking or eating food contaminated with a toxin could also cause symptoms resembling a seizure. Talk to your veterinarian or call the Pet Poison Helpline if you're worried about something your dog ate.

bowl of dog food

Can Fleas Cause Dogs to Have Seizures?

Similar to food, fleas are not a cause of dog seizures. But in theory, extreme itchiness could potentially look like a seizure. The medical term for skin itchiness is pruritus.

Anyone who's forgotten the bug spray on a hike knows how maddening the itch can be. A severe case of fleas can be so unbearable that pets will adopt unusual behaviors in search of relief. One veterinarian in Wisconsin treated a flea-bitten cat acting so strangely that she thought it might have rabies!

Using flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives is one of the easiest ways to protect your pet's health. In addition to being painfully itchy, these bugs carry diseases that could make your dog extremely ill.

Can Dogs Get Seizures from Dehydration?

Like humans and other animals, dogs have a minimum daily water requirement. Dehydration occurs when your dog's water intake is too low, or they lose more water than they consume. Signs of dehydration in dogs can include excessive panting, stringy drool, lethargy, and dry or sticky gums.

Severe dehydration could potentially trigger a seizure. However, dehydration is not a common cause of dog seizures. Repeated or prolonged seizures can cause dehydration due to increased body temperature. If your dog shows signs of dehydration, experiences multiple seizures in 24 hours, or has one seizure lasting more than five minutes, immediately take them to an emergency veterinarian.

Always give your dog constant, unlimited access to clean drinking water. Provide more water than you think they'll need, and bring extra water on outings. Avoid over-exercising your dog in hot weather, and take lots of water breaks to prevent heatstroke.

Additionally, never block your dog's access to drinking water. Dogs with kidney disease, Cushing's disease, and other conditions may drink an amount of water that seems excessive. However, their body's ability to retain moisture is compromised. They'll drink more to compensate and remain adequately hydrated.

dog drinking from bowl

What Toxins Cause Dog Seizures?

As a pet owner, it's crucial to know the poisons that can cause dog seizures. Understanding which substances can potentially cause seizures is part of protecting your pup's safety.

Dogs are naturally curious and love to explore. Unfortunately, these lovely traits can sometimes result in dogs eating or touching things that will harm them. Human medications are a common source of toxic poisoning in dogs.

Medications that can be toxic to dogs include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): 
    • Advil (ibuprofen)
    • Aleve (naproxen)
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Sleep medications
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Prescription stimulants
  • Prescription painkillers

Other toxic hazards for dogs in the home include:

  • Cleaning products: 
    • Ammonia
    • Bleach
    • Isopropyl alcohol
    • Chlorine
  • Certain foods: 
    • Chocolate
    • Caffeine
    • Sugar-free products containing xylitol (gum, candy)
    • Onions
    • Garlic
    • Grapes & raisins
  • Recreational drugs: 
    • High-THC marijuana/cannabis
    • Amphetamines
    • Alcohol
    • Nicotine
  • Toxic plants: 
    • Azalea
    • Lily
    • Sago palm
    • Autumn crocus
    • Foxglove
  • Toxic mushrooms
  • Pest control products: 
    • Insecticides
    • Rodenticides

If you suspect your dog has been exposed to a toxin, seek veterinary attention immediately. In many cases, a rapid response can significantly decrease the chance of lasting or life-threatening effects.

Should I Put My Dog Down if He Has Seizures?

Seizure episodes can be distressing and frightening to witness. Quality of life and reducing suffering are essential considerations for affected dogs.

Sudden seizures in younger dogs often stem from an inherited condition like epilepsy. In these cases, there are plentiful treatment options to try before putting the dog down (euthanasia). Anti-seizure medication and other treatments can drastically reduce seizures and help your dog live a long, happy life.

Still, some epileptic dogs do not respond to anti-seizure medications or other interventions. Older dogs that suddenly develop seizures can also be challenging to help. Schedule a quality-of-life conversation with your veterinarian if you feel your dog isn't improving. Your vet's office should be a safe space to ask questions and raise concerns without judgment.

dog being treated for an ailment

CBD and Seizures in Dogs

Cannabidiol (CBD) is an interesting new product with potential relevance for veterinary medicine. CBD belongs to a class of natural compounds called cannabinoids. Unlike the other major cannabinoid THC, CBD does not cause a "high."

In humans, CBD is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to help treat rare forms of childhood epilepsy (19). This product is used as an add-on treatment alongside traditional anti-seizure medications. Importantly, CBD has not been approved to treat any disease in animals.

Research on CBD in dogs is ongoing. So far, one controlled study in dogs found that CBD may reduce seizure frequency when given alongside traditional antiepileptic drugs (20). The effect was subtle, and more studies will be needed to see if a higher dose of CBD may be more helpful.

*Note from Lolahemp Editorial Board: It's difficult for pet owners to pinpoint an accurate hemp oil dosage for dog seizures - the research hasn't landed on a clear answer, and more investigation is needed to provide clear answers. If you're considering using hemp oil for dogs with epilepsy, explore options with your veterinarian. 

Overall, it will take time for the science to catch up on pet CBD. We need more information about its long-term safety and effectiveness in pets. Talk to your veterinarian if you want to try CBD for your dog. Do not use CBD to replace your dog's medications; follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. 

Conclusion

Seizures in dogs can be daunting for pet owners to witness. However, understanding what to expect during an episode and what to do in an emergency can help you remain calm.

Your dog can live a happy, fulfilling life with appropriate seizure management. Prompt diagnosis and careful medication management with your veterinarian are crucial to success.

References:

  1. Patterson, Edward E. "Canine epilepsy: an underutilized model." ILAR journal 55.1 (2014): 182-186. https://doi.org/10.1093/ilar/ilu021
  2. Berendt, M., Farquhar, R.G., Mandigers, P.J.J. et al. International veterinary epilepsy task force consensus report on epilepsy definition, classification and terminology in companion animals. BMC Vet Res11, 182 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-015-0461-2
  3. Kearsley‐Fleet, L., et al. "Prevalence and risk factors for canine epilepsy of unknown origin in the UK." Veterinary Record 172.13 (2013): 338-338. https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.101133
  4. Packer, Rowena MA, et al. "Clinical risk factors associated with antiepileptic drug responsiveness in canine epilepsy." PLoS One 9.8 (2014): e106026. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106026
  5. De Risio, Luisa, et al. "International veterinary epilepsy task force consensus proposal: diagnostic approach to epilepsy in dogs." BMC veterinary research 11.1 (2015): 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-015-0462-1
  6. Patterson, Edward Ned E. "Status epilepticus and cluster seizures." Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice 44.6 (2014): 1103-1112. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvsm.2014.07.007
  7. Charalambous, M., Shivapour, S.K., Brodbelt, D.C. et al. Antiepileptic drugs' tolerability and safety – a systematic review and meta-analysis of adverse effects in dogs. BMC Vet Res12, 79 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-016-0703-y
  8. Kearsley‐Fleet, L., et al. "Prevalence and risk factors for canine epilepsy of unknown origin in the U.K." Veterinary Record 172.13 (2013): 338-338. https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.101133
  9. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/nervous-system/congenital-and-inherited-anomalies-of-the-nervous-system/congenital-and-inherited-cerebral-disorders-in-animals?query=epilepsy
  10. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2022.928009/full
  11. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/riney-canine-health-center/canine-health-information/managing-seizures
  12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvsm.2004.05.016
  13. De Risio, Luisa. "Classification of seizures and epilepsies." Canine and feline epilepsy. CABI (2014): 39-53.
  14. https://vhc.missouri.edu/small-animal-hospital/neurology-neurosurgery/facts-on-neurologic-diseases/canine-idiopathic-epilepsy/
  15. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1748-5827.2012.01251.x
  16. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1939-1676.1999.tb01138.x
  17. 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tvjl.2007.12.023
  18. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/dog-ear-infections/
  19. https://www.epidiolex.com/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31067185/

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AUTHOR

Dr. Nicole Wanner graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine in 2018. Currently, she is an academic research veterinarian studying CBD and DNA. Her research has been published in trusted international research journals. Dr. Wanner is passionate about pet wellness and has professional interests in genetics, behavior, and healthy aging. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and reading sci-fi novels. She shares her home with her husband Evan and their two mischievous rescue cats, Sylvie and Nemo.


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