If you’ve witnessed a dog having a seizure, you know what a distressing and seemingly helpless experience it can be. Canine seizures are actually more prevalent than you likely think—they’re not uncommon and are one of the most frequently reported neurological conditions in dogs.
Often referred to as convulsions or fits, seizures are a temporary involuntary disturbance of normal brain function. Abnormal cerebral cortex activity is usually accompanied by uncontrollable muscle activity, drastic changes in mentation, and often occur at times of changing or increasing brain activity. This is why you may notice that your pup’s seizures take place during periods of excitement, mealtimes, or as your furry friend is falling asleep or waking up.
If one thing is for sure, it’s that seizures in dogs are incredibly difficult to watch. Understanding the signs of and what is happening during a convulsion episode can help owners calmly and rationally respond to their dog’s needs. What’s more, knowing the causes of seizures and what to do if your pup does have a seizure may help make the situation a little less stressful.
Table of contents
- Signs your pup may be having a seizure
- What to do when your dog is having a seizure
- Causes of canine seizures
- Are seizures painful for dogs?
- Treating a dog for seizures
Signs your pup may be having a seizure
It’s not always easy to tell whether or not your canine companion is about to have, is having, or has recently had a seizure. And seizures look different in every dog, so it’s important to pay close attention to your individual pup.
First, it’s important to understand what is happening in your dog’s brain and body during the various stages of a seizure. Seizures have three distinct phases: the pre-ictal, ictal, and post-ictal phases. Physical indications that your pup is about to have, is having or has experienced a seizure will depend on the stage at which they are.
Pre-ictal Phase – Change in mentation before the episode
Immediately leading up to the convulsions of a seizure, you may notice your dog behaving strangely as if they know something is wrong. Your dog may hide, appear nervous or panicked, or insist on clinging to your side. Your pup may also be restless, whining, shaking, salivating, or running around in circles.
Ictal Phase – Seizure event
What is considered the main period of a seizure, the ictal phase can last from a few seconds to several minutes and can vary in appearance. You may notice that your dog exhibits mild changes in mental awareness, such as a dazed look, mild shaking, staring aimlessly, licking lips. On the opposite end of the severity spectrum, a seizing dog may have a complete loss of consciousness and body function.
A full-blown seizure in which a dog loses consciousness is referred to as a grand mal seizure. During grand mal seizures, all of the muscles of the body move spastically and erratically. The dog usually falls over on its side and may either hold their legs straight out from their body or paddle their legs in the air. You may witness stiff or twitching muscles, uncontrolled jerking movements, or unusual eye-rolling. Urination, defecation, and salivation may occur. Put simply, a dog experiencing a grand mal seizure may appear completely paralyzed. According to veterinarians at VCA Animal Hospitals, if the seizure has not stopped within five minutes, the dog is considered to be in status epilepticus or prolonged seizure.
Post-ictal Phase – Change in mentation after the episode
Immediately after the end of a seizure, a dog will likely exhibit confusion, disorientation, salivation, pacing, restlessness, or even temporary blindness. There is no direct correlation between the severity of the seizure and the duration of the post-ictal phase.
What to do when your dog is having a seizure
We want to do everything we can for the health and safety of our pets. While watching your dog go through a seizure can be difficult and make you feel helpless, there are steps you can take to help your furry friend safely experience and recover from a fit.
- Stay calm so that you can be a source of comfort for your struggling pup and so that you can focus on helping them the best you can. This also applies to your tone of voice—used hushed, calm tones, as dogs pick up on our tone for context on how we’re feeling and what’s happening. There’s a strong likelihood of frightening your dog even more if you get in their face, cry, or yell.
- Relocate your seizing pup to a quiet, safe, comfortable place. Seizures can be particularly dangerous if your dog is near the stairs, edge of the bed, or other elevated surfaces. With panic and uncontrollable movements, they could fall, hit their head, or knock into objects around the house that could hurt them.
- Sit near your dog to offer comfort and supervision. Let your pup know you’re there without excessive chatter or noises around them. You should, however, avoid petting, hugging, or giving them other forms of physical attention. Particularly for a dog experiencing a seizure for the first time, they may bite uncontrollably and or out of confusion or fear.
- Take notes on the date, time, length, and symptoms. It’s likely the last thing on your mind as you’re attempting to deal with a convulsing dog, but keeping track of these details will help your veterinarian understand your pup’s unique case.
Timing seizures is particularly important, as a fit can become increasingly dangerous as a seizure goes on for longer amounts of time. Fits lasting shorter than two minutes are generally low-risk and your dog should recover safely and easily. If a seizure lasts between two and five minutes, this is considered within the warning zone and you should bring your pup to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Seizures lasting longer than five minutes are very dangerous and should be treated by a veterinarian immediately, as they are likely to sometimes cause irreversible brain damage and sometimes even death.
The amount of time that passes between bouts of convulsions is also very important. Your dog may experience a one-off seizure or a series of brief seizures (called cluster seizures). If your dog has several seizures in the span of a few minutes and does not wake up between each one, see the vet immediately.
- Cool down your pup, as seizures cause your dog’s body temperature to climb quickly. You can place cool washcloths on their paws and belly to try to bring down their body temperature to a safe level. The excessive muscle contractions occurring can warm the body and their brain thermostat is thrown off, which can lead to a rise in body temperature.
- Comfort your dog, but only if they are alert and welcoming physical attention. As previously mentioned, dogs can react aggressively either uncontrollably or out of fear during or following a fit, so be careful and gentle.
- Call the vet or initiate changes in medication your vet has prescribed as soon as you’re able. Your vet will want to know if this is your dog’s first seizure, how long it lasted, if there were multiple fits and how far apart they were, their symptoms, and history of either seizures or traumatic head injury.
- Let your pup eat and drink normally before and after the event if they want to. Don’t force it, but you can offer them food and water if they are physically able and alert and if they seem interested.
- Let them sleep it off after the episode. Your dog may be tired following a seizure. You should give them the space to rest and sleep.
Causes of canine seizures
Knowing the causes of seizures can help pup parents anticipate and prepare for possible fits, as well as help veterinarians determine the best course of action for helping dogs.
Epilepsy is common in dogs and is also the most frequently cited cause of canine seizures. Idiopathic epilepsy is an inherited disorder.
It’s possible that your dog recently ingested or was exposed to poisonous or toxic substances. Potential toxins can include caffeine, chocolate, alcohols, pesticides, and much more.
Abnormalities in your dog’s blood such as low blood sugar levels, diabetes, other metabolic diseases, and severe anemia can lead to seizures.
Infectious diseases and parasites
Infectious diseases such as canine distemper virus (CDV) and rabies, as well as infections caused by strange protozoal parasites can cause a brain infection leading to seizures in some cases.
Issues with a dog’s major organs can result in a bout of convulsions. It’s common for dogs with liver disease, sometimes severe kidney damage and degenerative brain diseases, and other brain tumors to experience seizures as a complication related to major organ damage.
- Bull Terriers can suffer from an inherited form of epilepsy, which causes behaviors such as tail chasing, irrational fear, and unprovoked aggression, in addition to seizures.
- Large herding and retriever dogs such as German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, Sheepdogs, and both Labrador and Golden Retrievers may be at an elevated risk of experiencing seizures. The collies and Australian Shepherds, among some other breeds commonly have the MDR1 gene, which increases their susceptibility to drug toxicosis.
- Brachycephalic dogs with short, flat noses, such as Pugs, Boston Terriers, and both French and English Bulldogs, can be prone to experiencing seizures.
Are seizures painful for dogs?
Despite the dramatic and violent appearance of a seizure, they are not painful for dogs. Leading up to and following a seizure, your pup will likely be confused or even panicked. Once in the middle of grand mal seizure, however, they are not conscious and will not be in pain. Hopefully, this helps put pet parents a little more at ease when having to watch their beloved canines experience a fit of convulsions.
Are seizures dangerous to dogs?
There are a couple of things to consider when thinking about your dog’s safety and seizures. A single seizure is not likely to be dangerous for your pup. However, multiple fits within a short window of time or a seizure that lasts an extended period of time can be very dangerous. Long and or recurrent seizures can bring your dog’s body temperature dangerously high. Referred to as hyperthermia, elevated body temperatures can lead to serious secondary complications.
In terms of keeping your dog safe during a seizure, it’s important to prevent them from hurting themselves. Their panic, confusion, and lack of muscle control can put them at risk of falling down a flight of stairs, off the bed or other furniture, or any other elevated surface. Try to keep them safely on the floor to avoid bumping into objects and knocking them over.
It’s a common assumption that both humans and dogs are at risk of swallowing or choking on their own tongues during a seizure. This isn’t actually true. Experts advise against attempting to prevent your dog from swallowing their tongue. Sticking your hand in their mouth will not only not likely help, but you may put yourself at risk of being bitten or further injuring your pup.
Ongoing serious issues with seizures can take a toll on the quality of life of your pup. According to the University of Missouri’s Veterinary Health Center, approximately 40-60 percent of dogs with episodes of status epilepticus have a mean lifespan of only eight years, compared to 11 years for those with epilepsy without episodes of status epilepticus. Some supplements can offer neuro support and promote cognitive health—ask your veterinarian!
Treating a dog for seizures
Because seizures in dogs may be caused by many different factors, your veterinarian will need to perform some diagnostic tests before they can determine the proper course of treatment. According to the American Kennel Club, treatment for seizures is commonly in the form of prescribed anticonvulsant medication, typically from a list of three to four well-known drugs. You can also ask your veterinarian about alternative products. It’s important to note that there are no quick fixes—addressing seizures is a long-term process.
Any health or medical information in ElleVet blogs is from a variety of public and reputable sources. This information is intended as an educational resource only is not a substitute for expert professional care.