starr-cameronIt’s unexpected – and often frightening. And it can happen with any breed at any age. One moment you and your dog are going about a typical day – and the next your dog is having a seizure.

You may feel like a helpless observer, but you are far from it.

Here are three things you can do to help even as your pet is in mid-seizure:

1. Stay safe and try to keep calm – and let your pet handle the seizure. Your pet will likely be completely unaware of surroundings or even his or her behavior during and immediately after a seizure. This also applies to cats having seizures, but dogs, in particular, can be very anxious, agitated, and even blind immediately following a seizure. Please do not try to hold or pet your animal during a seizure. Even the mildest of pets can seriously injure you even as you try to comfort them.

2. Clear space. Make the environment as safe and quiet as possible for your pet. Block nearby stairs or other dangers.

3. Take a video. There is no better way to describe what happened than with video. Other conditions, such as balance problems, pain, weakness, and certain behaviors can look like a seizure. Having the video – even a simple one taken with your cell phone – can help your veterinarian discern the difference.
When the seizure subsides, expect questions to surface. The most frequently asked ones are answered below.

Does my pet need to see the vet immediately?

While watching your dog have a seizure is never easy, a seizure doesn’t always mean you need to rush your pet to the emergency clinic, although it’s a good idea to check in with your veterinarian at least by phone if this is a first-ever seizure.

There are two seizure situations that warrant immediate emergency action: “Status Epilepticus” (a seizure lasting over 5 minutes) and Cluster Seizures (multiple seizures that occur within 24 hours of one another).

In each situation, medical intervention and an overnight hospitalization are often required to stop the seizing and otherwise stabilize your pet.

Why did my dog have a seizure and how do you tell?

By far the most common cause of seizures in dogs is idiopathic epilepsy, which means that no underlying cause can be found for the seizures. Some breeds are actually predisposed to having idiopathic epilepsy due to a genetic cause.

If your pet is diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, this is actually relative good news since many dogs live an otherwise long and happy life once seizure management programs are in place.

The alternative reasons for seizures are much less common. These include:

  • Infectious disease
  • Inflammatory brain diseases (encephalitis)
  • Strokes
  • Metabolic derangements
  • Brain tumors
  • Often, but not always, dogs with one of these other causes of seizures will exhibit other signs, such as behavior changes, being dull or lethargic, circling, getting stuck in corners, or trouble walking.

Some causes of seizures can be ruled in or out with basic blood work so that may be part of the veterinarian visit after the first seizure.

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and spinal tap are required to definitively diagnose idiopathic epilepsy. If, however, based on your dog’s history and a neurological exam, we see that a dog fits with the criteria, we are often comfortable saying that he has presumptive idiopathic epilepsy, meaning that an MRI and spinal tap do not have to be performed for confirmation.

canine-seizures-fact-sheet-sage-centersWhat else do I need to know about having a pet that has seizures?

Take precautions.Your pet may have a seizure when you are not at home. Look for dangers – and mitigate them. For example, if you have stairs in your home, use a baby gate to keep your pet away from them. Your pet can be seriously injured when taking the stairs if disoriented after a seizure.
Track medications. Treatment for seizures often involves medications. Consistency is critical but can be difficult with our hectic lives. Consider keeping a calendar to track dosing.

Watch for side effects.
A lot of the anti-seizure medications have side effects. Some may be temporary and improve within 10 to 14 days. Others may last longer. If your pet is having negative side effects, such as being lethargic, trouble walking, behavior changes, please alert your veterinarian. Your pet may be better suited to a different drug option.

One last thing… and it’s important.

Seizures are a very alarming thing to experience with your pet. Knowing another may surface can be unsettling. Keep in mind that you are not alone in this. Talking to your veterinarian can help ease concerns you may have regarding seizures. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

This article, written by Starr Cameron, BVetMed, DACVIM (Neurology), was originally published in the SAGE Centers Newsletter (May 2014)