Dog Seizures: Signs, Causes, and What To Do When Your Dog Has a Seizure

What does a dog seizure look like? And what to do for your dog immediately and later, once you’ve had a chance to recover from the scary experience.

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If you’ve never seen a dog having a full-blown convulsive seizure, consider yourself lucky – and hope you never do. It’s awful to watch in any dog. Now imagine he’s yours. 

Seizures come in all shapes and sizes. The big, bad grand mal seizure is a generalized seizure with widespread excessive, aberrant electrical activity occurring in both sides of the brain. Also known as tonic-clonic or convulsive seizure, dog seizure symptoms include:

  • Suddenly falling over
  • Violent, jerking spasms of all four limbs
  • Paddling
  • Frothing at the mouth
  • Losing control of bladder and bowels
  • Full loss of consciousness

Jump to: Causes | Medication

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR DOG HAS A SEIZURE

First and foremost, make sure you both stay safe. You must stay away from your dog’s mouth to avoid inadvertently being bitten. The natural tendency is to want to comfort your dog by hugging and/or stroking his head. But your dog is not aware during a seizure, nor is he in control of his violent jaw movements. Further, in the minutes to hours after a seizure, called the post-ictal phase, your dog may be disoriented or demented, which can be expressed as aggressive behavior, even rage. You need to be very careful both during the seizure and in the aftermath.

To keep your dog safe, remove any items near him that are breakable or that may fall on him. If he is near a set of stairs, try to stay below him on the stairs so you can prevent him from falling.

what to do if your dog has a seizure
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Next, time the seizure with your watch. This is important for two reasons. One is for keeping track of your dog’s seizures, in a log or journal, which will be used to determine when the seizures are becoming more severe or more frequent. The second one is because of a life-threatening condition called status epilepticus.

Status epilepticus is an ongoing seizure that doesn’t self-resolve. If a dog is in status epilepticus for too long, he will die, much the way he would die from heat stroke. There is so much intense, violent physical activity going on that the core body temperature rises to life-threatening levels. Status epilepticus requires emergency veterinary intervention with an intravenous medication, usually a benzodiazepine like diazepam (Valium), to break the ongoing seizure.

A good rule of thumb is five minutes. If a dog has been seizing for five minutes, you need to get in the car and get going to the veterinary clinic. If he is still seizing when you get there, he is in dire need of emergency help. If the seizure resolves while you are on your way, you don’t necessarily have to go in and incur an emergency fee. Sit tight for a little bit. If your dog remains quiet, the life-threatening status epilepticus emergency is over.

OTHER TYPES OF DOG SEIZURES

Other generalized seizures include tonic (stiff, extended limbs that don’t move or jerk), clonic (hyperflexed, non-jerking limbs), myoclonic (jerking limbs), and atonic (standing, staring, non-responsive).

Focal seizures, which happen when the abnormal electrical activity is localized to just one spot in the brain, can look like a lot of different things. “Fly-biting” is a classic one, where the dog looks like he is seeing and repeatedly snapping at flies. 

The “chewing gum fit” is where the jaw repeatedly clacks. A focal seizure might just be repeated twitching of an eyelid, lip, or ear. There is not necessarily loss of consciousness. 

These types of seizures rarely present a big problem and usually don’t require treatment. A focal seizure, however, can segue into a generalized seizure, so be sure to keep a close watch until it passes.

Additional Care Tips for a Dog Who Experiences Seizures
  • Ask your veterinarian about dispensing a dose of diazepam (Valium) that you can keep on hand at home, for rectal administration in the event of a seizure. This will be dispensed to you in a syringe with a rubber tube attached. All you need to do is introduce the tip of the rubber tube about an inch into the rectum and dispense the medicine. This will often shorten and lessen the severity of the seizure.
  • If your dog is prone to cluster seizures while on an anti-convulsant, ask your veterinarian about keeping a supply of levetiracetam (Keppra) on hand. A few doses of this short-acting anti-convulsant can be given after a seizure to prevent a cluster.
  • Stimulating your dog’s vagal nerve may help lessen the duration and severity of a seizure. If you can safely do this, gently push on your dog’s eyes, with closed lids, for 10 to 60 seconds. This can be repeated every five minutes. If you recognize your dog’s pre-ictal signs, you may even be able to stave off a seizure with this maneuver.
  • Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) can be used adjunctively, either to improve seizure control for dogs with refractory seizures in spite of anti-convulsant medication or to help lower the dose of anti-convulsant medications. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are the mainstays of this approach, which require a trained specialist.
  • Consider feeding your dog Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diet NeuroCare (NC), especially if your dog has refractory seizures in spite of anti-convulsant medication. This unique diet uses medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) as a fat source. MCTs are known to block one of the receptors in the brain responsible for seizures. Studies have shown a significant reduction in seizure activity when epileptic dogs are fed this diet. 

 

CAUSES OF DOG SEIZURES

Seizures can be caused by metabolic disorders like hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), hypocalcemia (low blood calcium), liver disease, liver shunts, kidney disease, and others. These seizures are called reactive seizures. The brain itself is normal, and if the metabolic disorder can be corrected, the seizures go away. 

Some drugs can cause seizures by lowering the seizure threshold in the brain. Discontinuing the drug resolves these reactive seizures.

Toxins, like dark chocolate, caffeine, xylitol (sugar-free sweetener), ethylene glycol (anti-freeze), bromethalin (rat poison), ethanol (liquor), to name a few, can cause seizures. Again, removing and treating for the toxin eliminates the seizures.

Seizures can be caused by abnormalities in the brain itself. These are called structural seizures and are caused by things like tumors, head trauma, inflammatory diseases like granulomatous meningoencephalitis, and infectious diseases like rabies and canine distemper.

Far and away the most common cause of seizures seen in the veterinary clinic is epilepsy. Epilepsy is defined as seizures of unknown origin. There are no structural lesions in the brain. There are no infections, metabolic disorders, drugs, or toxins to blame. A diagnosis of epilepsy is typically made after every other possible cause of seizures has been ruled out.

There are things in addition to a normal physical exam, a normal neurological exam, and normal bloodwork that clue your veterinarian in to the likelihood of epilepsy. The biggest thing is age at onset of seizures. Epilepsy usually starts between 1 and 6 years of age. 

Dogs less than 1 year of age are more likely to have either a congenital defect, an intoxication, or an infectious disease like canine distemper. Dogs who are more than 6 years of age when they have their first seizure are more likely to have a metabolic disorder or a structural brain lesion like a tumor.

Breed predilection toward epilepsy is another clue your vet uses. Schnauzers, Collies, Bassett Hounds, Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, and Golden Retrievers are over-represented among dogs with epilepsy.what else can you do

To review: The first time your dog has a seizure, remain calm, stay safe, and time the seizure. Once your dog has recovered, schedule a veterinary exam as soon as possible. 

The first thing your veterinarian has to do is ascertain that the event was indeed a seizure. Capturing it on video is immensely helpful for your veterinarian. The biggest differential for a seizure episode is a cardiac event. If a dog suffers an intermittent cardiac arrhythmia, it can result in confusion, weakness and collapse, which can sometimes be mistaken for seizure activity. Generally speaking, cardiac collapse tends to be softer than seizure activity, more like fainting, and the dog usually recovers much more quickly.

If your veterinarian agrees it was a seizure, she will conduct a physical exam and a thorough neurological exam. Baseline bloodwork should be done to rule out metabolic causes of seizures. Further diagnostics may be recommended from there and could include infectious disease testing, CT scan, or MRI.

TO TREAT OR NOT?

dog seizures
An accidental lineup of some other epilepsy-prone breeds: Schnauzers, Golden Retrievers, and Border Collies are over-represented among seizure-prone dogs.

Will your vet recommend that your dog be medicated in an effort to reduce or eliminate his seizures? It depends.

Let’s say your dog is between 1 and 6 years of age, all testing is normal, and a diagnosis of epilepsy is made. Most veterinarians agree starting anti-convulsant drug therapy is generally not indicated after just one seizure. However, the following are exceptions to this rule:

  •  Cluster seizures, described as more than three seizures in a 24-hour period, warrant treatment.
  • If the seizure was particularly violent, or if it lasted a long time (5 minutes or more) treatment should be considered right away. 
  • Certain breeds are notorious for having difficult-to-control seizures. These include the German Shepherd Dog, Border Collie, Irish Setter, Golden Retriever, Siberian Husky, Keeshond, and Saint Bernard. You may not want to wait in these breeds.

For all the others, keep a seizure log where you write down the date and time it happened, now long it lasted, how severe it was, and any other information you think might be pertinent. This log will be used to determine when it might be time to start anti-convulsant therapy.

You might wonder why you wouldn’t just start your dog on anti-convulsants, because you certainly don’t want him to have another seizure. But consider this: Your dog may never have another seizure! Or he may have a mild one once a year. You can’t know until you see how it plays out. And once an anti-convulsant is started, it is generally necessary for life. 

If your dog is one of those epileptics who only has a rare, occasional seizure, you are taxing his body with a medication he really doesn’t need – and you are paying for it! Not to mention that well-managed epileptic dogs on anti-convulsants may still have break-through seizures occasionally. A seizure-free future is not guaranteed, even with long-term medication.

In my opinion, if a dog is seizing as often as twice a month, I think it’s too much for his quality of life, and for yours! I usually recommend starting an anti-convulsant in this case. However, as the person living with and loving the dog, you can and should be the ultimate decider of when enough is enough and it’s time to start.

MEDICATIONS FOR DOG SEIZURES

There are several different anti-convulsants available for dogs. Zonisamide has become the most popular, as it works well with minimal side effects. Phenobarbital, potassium bromide, and levetiracetam (Keppra) are other medications your veterinarian may discuss with you. 

Some dogs may require more than one medication to manage their seizures. Levetiracetam is frequently used as a second medication. It is short-acting, which means it must be dosed three times a day. This can be challenging for dog owners. The extended-release formula, Keppra XR, which is dosed twice a day is much easier. 

A couple of notes on Keppra XR: You cannot split or cut the pills as this destroys the extended-release function. Also, a funny thing about it: You may see the tablet in your dog’s poop, seemingly whole and undigested. Don’t be alarmed. This is okay! The active drug is inside the non-digestible tablet, which has a hole in it. Digestive juices enter through the hole and dissolve the drug, which is then slowly released to be absorbed by the body. This is how the extended-release version works. Once the non-digestible tablet has done its job, it passes safely out with your dog’s feces.

Sometimes, a previously well-managed epileptic starts having more breakthrough seizures. Unfortunately, some dogs will develop tolerance to their anti-convulsant medication over time. In these cases, the liver continuously increases the rate at which it metabolizes the drug, making increasingly higher doses necessary. Higher doses mean more and worse side effects. This can be frustrating and challenging to manage.

TAKE HEART

Seizures in dogs are frightening and difficult for us to observe. Luckily, there are many tools at our disposal to help diagnose and manage this heart-breaking condition. 

17 COMMENTS

  1. We have a wonderful dog who is epileptic – a 2 year old lab who had his first seizure at 8 months. There is emerging research on using CBD and other cannabis-derived drugs to treat seizure disorders, and our vet has helped us work through this with our dog. He’s on a combination of Keppra and CBD, and the CBD has been amazing. It helped us to reduce his Keppra down to a level where it doesn’t have side effects (on higher doses he was incredibly fatigued all day). I’m sure there will be more research about CBD in the future, for both canines and humans who have epilepsy.

    • Hi MP – I read your comment about CBD with interest. My 2-year old Boxer was diagnosed with epilepsy at around 18 months old. He has cluster seizures and very recently went into status epilepticus. It was absolutely terrifying and we thought we’d lost him but 3 weeks later, he’s home with us and making a steady recovery. But he’s on quite the cocktail of meds (Levetaricetum, Phenobarbital and zonasomide) that ideally I’d like to safely reduce in the future if we can find a genuine and effective alternative. I’ve read a lot about CBD working well, but anything you can tell me about it would be really helpful. Thank you so much in advance 🙂

    • Our 3 year old Bernedoodle also has seizures. He’s on extended release Levetaricetum but i wold like to add CBD oil to his regimen. I purchased one called King Kale, I asked my vet about it and he just couldn’t give me any information on efficacy or dosing. I was wondering what CBD you are using and how are you dosing?

  2. I have a collie that had a grand Mal seizure. Blood work confirmed low thyroid. With thyroid treatment have never seen another seizure.

  3. Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) are recommended in the Additional Care Tips. Coconut oil is one source, but considering the variety of means of processing it, it may not have any MCTs left. Is there a recommended source? And if one could procure the ProPlan NeuroCare, would adding a small amount (say 10%) to the daily food be helpful? Re: old dog with short seizures every couple months.

  4. MCT oil I have been using for my 16 year old westie is from CocoTherapy -https://www.cocotherapy.com/products/triplex-mct-3-oil

    I also use Vetri DMG (yes the last ingredint is rosemary extract, so ask an integrative vet if this is safe for your dog’s condition)

    I give 150 mg twice a day of gabapentin.

  5. We have had our family dog for 15 years now. Thanks for the information that some old dog seizures are caused by hypoglycemia which can be addressed by looking into the blood sugar levels. We might frequent a veterinary clinic from now on to make our dog’s final days more comfortable.

  6. My pit bull began having focal seizures (jaw chattering) after her puppy shots. She continued her whole life (15 years). Feeding a raw food diet with a Tbsp of coconut oil on her food and eliminating chemicals and injections helped keep it to generally once a month or so. I tried acupuncture, Chinese herbs, supplements, CBD, you name it.

    They were always more often in the winter with sometimes a couple small ones a week. When she was 12 or so I began giving her vitamin D beginning in august each year through the spring and it almost completely stopped (one a year). I wish I had figured out the vitamin D earlier in her life. It is inexpensive and worked great to reduce the seizures almost completely.

    • Vitamin D…that’s an interesting one. Do you have any idea why it works in terms of seizure reduction/management? Also, was it something you stumbled upon or was it suggested by your vet as a possible treatment?

  7. to Claire Masters and others, I’m so happy this article was done, and that it was quick to mention low blood sugar/hypoglycemia as a cause. My beloved Ali was in her lower teens when she had her first one. But we unfortunately had an arrogant vet who I should have abandoned years earlier. He was quick to decide it was a brain tumor and send us off on a wild goose chase for very expensive diagnositics, not to mention how frightening and traumatic. I kept a log I would share with him and he ignored it or my comments/observations. Ultimately we learned of a new mobile vet practice which reduced the stress of my love going into the vets stressful practice/waiting area. Joan was absolutely wonderful and LISTENED. Which led her to immediately yank her old vet text out and explain what she thought might be a cause…an insulinoma…which causes LOW blood sugar. Joan said next time she looked like she might have one or was having one to call them and she’d come get a blood sample to send to Michigan, where they ran a test…in the mean time, she ran one on her own equipment that read her glucose level was very very low…28. From then on we fed her frequent high carb meals through out the day. I would make batches on the weekend of our version of tuna noodle casserole, and noodle kugel, but them into individual servings, and freeze them for use as needed. Fortunately we lived with my parents who were home all day , and mom would give her snacks every day of one of these. We had begun with the old vet and phenobarb which was very upsetting to observe as she became zombie like…the food seemed to help. We never got rid of the seizures entirely, but it much improved and she lived far longer than the dx at age 12 or so. Do not heistate to leave a long-time vet. You don’t need to tolerate their ignorance. I learned after the fact a hypoglycemia cause should have been one of the first considered. I would have sued this guy but he was the nearest vet, and with our new vet being mobile I feared her not being accessible in an emergency. Also I had another pup at the time. ANd while behavior is unpredictable after a seizure, it can be different for all. I found it seemed reassuring to speak softly, stroke her, maybe keep the lights down in a room as she came out of a seizure. She did not but once seem reactive to the other pup in her space. She was always gentle, maybe a bit unsteady initially back on her feet. I didn’t hesitate to put a pillow under her head or a blanket on her if needed (a light one). NEVER SETTLE. And please at all time remember the nearest vet for convenience sake is not always in your or your pup’s best interest. We ultimately found a vet on the opposite side of town, 45 minutes by freeway away. My original beloved vet we found Joan, well, she wound up having a baby (now in college). We remain friends…but we stopped seeing her because she decided she couldn’t be a good mom and good vet both and stopped practicing. I still hold out hope she returns. There is nothing like the comfort of having a vet you feel safe and comfortable with, that you can trust.

  8. PS…I should mention we did also use a tiny bit of prednisone which had its drawbacks but also as a side effect slightly raises blood sugar…and surgery was considered as an option. But it is a very delicate surgery poking around the pancreas and set off pancreatitis…so if surgery was done they automatically treat for it. Meaning she would have remained in the hospital a long while without the love, support, and comfort of her own surroundings and family. So I was opposed, and DETERMINED. ANd with a good vet hanging in there with me, we made it!

  9. My shepard/shiba inu mix got seizures from a reaction to nexguard. They were well controlled with valium, even when she developed dementia when she was 12. They were very scary to watch…☹

  10. Our dear girl starting having seizures when she was about 7 years old. I have a daughter with seizures so I was at least familiar with them and many seizure meds. She did have one seizure where she was very disoriented and snapped at me. We waited quietly until her gaze softened and then she was fine. I didn’t have to put her on any meds until she was about 12 due to increased frequency and the seizures were taking a toll on her. She was put on phenobarbital. I was able to reduce the dose from 60mg 2x’s a day to 30mg 2x’s a day. Her appetite became ravenous on the phenobarbital! We laid her to rest in August at 15 yrs of age.

  11. THANKS for the super article you have been doing a superb job for years. Your obvious caring for animals is so gratifying and an example for all. Please keep up the good work.

  12. Our Havanese had multiple seizures and drugs were recommended. Not wanting to spouse her to a lifetime of being on those strong medications, we took her to a holistic vet who treated her with homeopathic remedies. We have gone for 5 years without any seizures.

  13. Our poodle mix had a major seizure recently. His only one so far. We took him to a neurologist who did an MRI to find an inoperable tumor in his brain , We are investigating radiation therapy which the neurologist and our regular vet said has a high probability of success. It is expensive and requires one session for fives days a week. We are willing to do this for our 11 year old who we just adopted and love so much. Any input from anyone with experience with radiation therapy is appreciated. Jay

  14. We lost our 10 month old pup to a status epilipticus seizure last night, we have no is
    idea what happened although we suspect some kind of toxin. She appeared terrified of something earlier in the evening but appeared to get over this and then seemed okay for an hour or so. She was then violently sick and had diarrhoea, then the seizure started. We rushed her to the vets who took her straight from us (we had wet towels in her trying to reduce her temperature). The vet cam back to us shortly after this and advised us that she was brain dead due to the length of the seizure. We are devastated and can not understand what has happened, and we think we did everything we could. I think unless you live within 5 minutes if your vets with this type of seizure the dog doesn’t stand a chance

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