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Your beloved companion has just had a seizure.  You are frightened, and feel utterly helpless in the face of this situation.  What caused this?  What happened to trigger it?  What can you do to "fix" it?  Can it BE fixed? What do you do to prevent or delay the next one? What can you do to help your pet? 

All these questions and more will flood your brain if your dog has a seizure.  You feel helpless and scared and want to make it all go away.  You may not be able to make them go away forever, but you CAN arm yourself with the knowledge it will take to help your pet before, during and after a seizure, and to make their life as near normal as possible.  Knowledge is power, and knowing what to do will help you regain some control over this condition.

Seizures are not generally a death sentence, although severe seizures can be life threatening.  They are not painful to the dog, although they can injure themselves during a seizure if they aren't protected.

 

Just what is a seizure?

A seizure is an episode where an animal (in this case your IG) exhibits a sudden change in behavior characterized by changes in sensory perception or motor activity due to abnormal firing of nerve cells in the brain. 

Epilepsy is a condition characterized by recurrent seizures that may include repetitive muscle jerking called convulsions.  Most diagnosis of seizures in dogs, particularly in instances where the seizures begin before the age of 5 or 6 years, are deemed “Idiopathic Epilepsy”, which basically means “we don’t have a clue what is causing the seizure activity”.  It is believed that IE has a genetic component, and is most likely “polygenic”, meaning that the inheritance is carried on several different gene locations.  This makes it impossible to track genetically, as there is no simple mode of inheritance, such as “a dog which seizures will produce get that also seize, or conversely, that dogs that have never seizured will never produce one that does.  The fact is, any dog is capable of seizing, and of producing a dog that seizures.  Since no one spends 24/7 time with their dogs, it is impossible to know for certain if a dog has had a seizure (particularly a petit mal episode) when no one was around.  Additionally, some of the forms of seizure episodes are so mild, they may very well go unnoticed.

Seizure disorders and their classification date back to the earliest medical literature accounts in history. In 1964, the Commission on Classification and Terminology of the International League Against Epilepsy (ILAE) devised the first official classification of seizures, which was revised again in 1981. This classification is accepted worldwide and is based on electroencephalographic (EEG) studies. Based on this system, seizures can be classified as either focal or generalized. Each of these categories can also be further subdivided.

Focal seiz ures

A focal (partial) seizure develops when a limited, confined population of nerve cells fire their impulses abnormally on one hemisphere of the brain. (The brain has two portions or cerebral hemispheres—the right and left hemispheres.) Focal seizures are divided into simple or complex based on the level of consciousness (wakefulness) during an attack. Simple partial seizures occur in patients who are conscious, whereas complex partial seizures demonstrate impaired levels of consciousness.

Generalized seizures

A generalized seizure results from initial abnormal firing of brain nerve cells throughout both left and right hemispheres. Generalized seizures can be classified as follows:

  • Tonic-clonic seizures: This is the most common type among all age groups and is categorized into several phases beginning with vague symptoms hours or days before an attack. These seizures are sometimes called grand mal seizures.
  • Tonic seizures: These are typically characterized by a sustained nonvibratory contraction of muscles in the legs and arms. Consciousness is also impaired during these episodes.
  • Atonic seizures (also called "drop attacks"): These are characterized by sudden, limp posture and a brief period of unconsciousness and last for one to two seconds.
  • Clonic seizures: These are characterized by a rapid loss of consciousness with loss of muscle tone, tonic spasm, and jerks. The muscles become rigid for about 30 seconds during the tonic phase of the seizure and alternately contract and relax during the clonic phase, which lasts 30–60 seconds.
  • Absence seizures: These are subdivided into typical and atypical forms based on duration of attack and level of consciousness. They usually begin with a brief loss of consciousness and last between one and 10 seconds. Dogs having a petit mal seizure become very quiet and may blink, stare blankly, roll their eyes, or move (lick) their lips. A petit mal seizure lasts 15–20 seconds to a minute or so. When it ends, the individual resumes whatever he or she was doing before the seizure began, will not remember the seizure, and may not realize that anything unusual happened. Untreated, petit mal seizures can recur as many as 100 times a day and may progress to grand mal seizures.
  • Myoclonic seizures: These are characterized by rapid muscular contractions accompanied with jerks in facial and pelvic muscles.

Causes and symptoms

Simple partial seizures can be caused by congenital abnormalities (abnormalities present at birth*), tumor growths, head trauma, stroke, and infections in the brain or nearby structures. Generalized tonic-clonic seizures are associated with drug toxicity, or low levels of blood glucose (blood sugar) and sodium. Certain medications, antihistamines, and even antibiotics can precipitate tonic-clonic seizures, as can intolerance to vaccinations or pesticides such as flea controls. Absence seizures are implicated with an abnormal imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain that modulate nerve cell activity (one of these neurotransmitters is called GABA, which functions as an inhibitor).

 

Various conditions that can cause epileptic episodes include low thyroid, which also has a genetic predisposition. *One of the most frequent physical genetic abnormalities that can cause seizures is a liver shunt.  Another is hydrocephaly, or “water on the brain”.  Blood tests, MRI’s and ultrasounds are necessary to confirm a liver shunt.  Hydrocephaly is generally observable to the trained eye without further testing.

 

Symptoms for the different types of seizures are specific.

 

Partial seizures

  • SIMPLE PARTIAL SEIZURES Multiple signs and symptoms may be present during a single simple partial seizure. These symptoms include specific muscles tensing and then alternately contracting and relaxing, vocalizations (such as low barking, growling, or “moaning”, and involuntary turning of the eyes or head. There could be changes in vision, hearing, balance, taste, and smell, although this is difficult to assess unless you’re interacting with the dog at the time. Additionally, dogs with simple partial seizures may exhibit hair follicles standing up (piloerection), and dilated pupils (the dark center in the eye enlarges). Seizures with psychological symptoms include thinking disturbances and hallucinations, or illusions of memory, sound, or sight.  These can cause the dog to exhibit behavior such as “fly biting”, barking or growling at nothing, or fear reaction with no observable trigger.

  • COMPLEX PARTIAL SEIZURES Complex partial seizures often begin with a motionless stare or arrest of activity; this is followed by a series of involuntary movements, possible vocalizations, and eye movements.

Generalized seizures

Generalized seizures have a more complex set of signs and symptoms.

  • TONIC-CLONIC SEIZURES Tonic-clonic seizures usually have vague prodromal (pre-attack) symptoms that can start hours or days before a seizure. These symptoms include anxiety, mood changes, irritability, weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, and changes in appetite. The tonic phases may be preceded with brief (lasting only a few seconds in duration) muscle contractions on both sides of affected muscle groups. The tonic phase typically begins with a brief flexing of trunk muscles, upward movement of the eyes, and pupil dilation. Patients usually emit a characteristic vocalization. This sound is caused by contraction of trunk muscles that forces air from the lungs across spasmodic (abnormally tensed) throat muscles. This is followed by a very short period (10–15 seconds) of general muscle relaxation. The clonic phase consists of muscular contractions with alternating periods of no movements (muscle atonia) of gradually increasing duration until abnormal muscular contractions stop. Tonic-clonic seizures end in a final generalized spasm. The affected dog can lose consciousness during tonic and clonic phases of seizure.Tonic-clonic seizures can also produce chemical changes in the body. The seizing dogs commonly experience lowered carbon dioxide (hypocarbia) due to breathing alterations, increased blood glucose (blood sugar), and elevated level of a hormone called prolactin. Once the affected dog regains consciousness, he or she is usually weak, and may sleep or be unusually sedate.  It is thought that this is due to the probability of residual headache and muscle pain. Tonic-clonic seizures can cause serious medical problems such as trauma to the head and mouth, fractures in the spinal column, pulmonary edema (water in the lungs), aspiration pneumonia (a pneumonia caused by a foreign body being lodged in the lungs), and sudden death. Attacks are generally one minute in duration.

  • TONIC SEIZURES Tonic and atonic seizures have distinct differences but are often present in the same patient. Tonic seizures are characterized by nonvibratory muscle contractions, usually involving relaxing or flexing of legs. The seizure usually lasts less than 10 seconds but may be as long as one minute. Tonic seizures are usually abrupt and patients lose consciousness. Tonic seizures commonly occur during non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep and drowsiness. Tonic seizures that occur during wakeful states commonly produce physical injuries due to abrupt, unexpected falls.

  • ATONIC SEIZURES Atonic seizures, also called "drop attacks," are abrupt, with loss of muscle tone lasting one to two seconds, but with rapid recovery. Consciousness is usually impaired. The rapid loss of muscular tone could be limited to head and neck muscles, resulting in head drop, or it may be more extensive, involving muscles for balance and causing unexpected falls with physical injury.

  • CLONIC SEIZURES Generalized clonic seizures are rare and seen typically in dogs with elevated fever. These seizures are characterized by a rapid loss of consciousness, decreased muscle tone, and generalized spasm that is followed by jerky movements.

  • ABSENCE SEIZURES Absence seizures are classified as either typical or atypical. The typical absence seizure is characterized by unresponsiveness and behavioral arrest, abnormal muscular movements of the face and eyelids, and usually lasts less than 10 seconds. In atypical absence seizures, the affected dog is generally more conscious, the seizures begin and end more gradually, and usually do not exceed 10 seconds in duration.

  • MYOCLONIC SEIZURES Myoclonic seizures commonly exhibit rapid muscular contractions. Myoclonic seizures are seen in young dogs who have either symptomatic or idiopathic (cause is unknown) epilepsy.

 

Diagnosis

 

A physical exam should be done on any dog that has had a seizure.  This will include a complete blood count (CBC), which can be helpful in determining whether a seizure is caused by a neurological infection, which is typically accompanied by high fever.  A complete thyroid panel and liver panel should also be run. If drugs or toxins in the blood are suspected to be the cause of the seizure(s), blood and urine screening tests for these compounds may be necessary.  In some cases, an EEG or MRI may be indicated to help pinpoint the possible cause of the seizures.

Antiseizure medication can be altered by many commonly used medications such as sulfa drugs, erythromycin, warfarin, and cimetidine. Diagnosis requires a detailed and accurate history, and a physical examination is important since this may help identify neurological or systemic causes. In cases in which a central nervous system (CNS) infection (i.e., meningitis or encephalitis) is suspected, a lumbar puncture (or spinal tap) can help detect an increase in immune cells (white blood cells) that develop to fight the specific infection.

 

Treatments

Treatment is targeted primarily to:

  • assist the owner in adjusting psychologically to the diagnosis and in aiding them in maintaining as normal a life as possible for their dog
  • reduce or eliminate seizure occurrence
  • avoid side effects of long-term drug treatment

The usual medications prescribed for treating seizure disorder in dogs are Phenobarbital and Potassium Bromide.  Both of these drugs are helpful, when prescribed and given under veterinary supervision and monitoring.  Neither come without risk, and the long term use of either can affect liver function. 

Melatonin is reported to be helpful in minimizing or suppressing seizure episodes, particularly the ones that occur during the night, or while the dog is sleeping. 

For those dogs that experience cluster seizures, or seizures that are exceptionally strong, or long in duration, valium  suppositories may be prescribed by the veterinarian for the owner to use at home to aid in breaking the seizure episode.

It is possible to help manage a seizure dog using diet.  All seizure prone dogs can benefit from being fed a balanced diet with no grains in them.  Many dog owners with seizure dogs are finding that feeding a raw diet that they put together in their own kitchens, or purchase pre-made, that have no grain or preservatives in them are of great benefit to their dogs overall health and seem to suppress the incidence of seizure episodes.

In young puppies, small dogs, or extremely active dogs who seizure due to low blood glucose, it is possible to check the blood glucose level using at-home human diagnostic tools.   A dog’s normal blood glucose level should be between 80-180, and will fluctuate during the day in response to activity and meals.  Illness can cause a change in blood glucose, as can dehydration, which may put the dog at risk.  Even an otherwise healthy dog can seize due to these conditions. 
To check the blood glucose level, it is recommended that you use one of the meters that requires the smallest amount of blood used. Using one of the lancets in the kit, prick the lip (or inner thigh) of the dog, and press to cause the blood to bead up (using the lancet holder).  Using the meter with one of the strips that draw blood by vacuum action, collect the blood and the meter does the rest.  A dog with low blood sugar should be given a bit of Karo syrup or vanilla natural ice cream at room temperature to raise the blood glucose quickly.  A dog that is ill or not eating/drinking should be given a supplement such as Nutracal to keep the blood glucose level in a safe range, and should be given water by syringe or put on IV fluids if necessary to help prevent seizures.

If your dog experiences a seizure, it is helpful to give the Karo or vanilla ice cream with a dose of a product such as “Rescue Remedy” to bring blood glucose up and calm the dog, thus alleviating some of the discomfort associated with the post ictus (post seizure) state.  IF you recognize the pre ictus (pre seizure) symptoms, it is believed that a dose of “Rescue Remedy” or other similar product may help ward off the episode.

It is helpful to keep a journal of your dog’s seizure activity which should include at least the following information: Date, time of day, activity just prior (previous 24 hours) of seizure, what was fed and when, any medications or pesticides used, any cleaning supplies used in the home, any form or injury or trauma, anything that was “different” in the dog’s surroundings or activities.  The more information the better.  By doing this, you may eventually see a pattern or be able to identify certain “triggers” to the seizure episodes.  This will assist you in removing as many of the triggers as possible, thereby (hopefully) reducing the frequency and intensity of the seizures.

If you have a dog that suffers from Idiopathic Epilepsy, you will probably witness one or more seizures during your pet’s lifetime. 

First of all, stay calm.  This won’t be an easy task, as it’s extremely difficult to watch your beloved companion in the throes of a seizure and feel so helpless.  If the dog is on a piece of furniture, gently move them to the floor, away from furniture, so they don’t fall or otherwise injure themselves.  It is safe to hold them and speak to them quietly, even if they can’t hear you. 

If you have other dogs, you may want to move the dog to another  room where the others can’t interfere.  Often, in a multi-dog household, pack members will turn on and injure or even kill a seizing dog. 


We have found that moving to a darkened quiet room is beneficial.  It also seems that wrapping the dog in a blanket or holding them close can shorten the duration of a seizure.
Rubbing the ear tips gently but firmly in a circular motion has been noted to help alleviate or shorten the duration of seizure activity.  Apparently there are pressure points there that cause a form of biofeedback to that part of the brain where the seizure is originating. The seizure may last several seconds to a minute or more. 

Seizures that last longer than 5 minutes are cause for concern and a call/trip to a veterinary emergency room.  Another cause for concern are cluster seizures, which basically are many seizures that follow one another in rapid succession.  Again, a trip to the emergency vet is in order here.  Your dog may lose control of its bladder or bowels during a severe seizure.  This is not abnormal, but doesn’t always happen.

Dogs that have moderate to severe seizure episodes can be helped at home by Valium suppositories that can be administered by the owner.  These are prescribed and supplied by the veterinarian in charge of the dog’s care. 

After a seizure, your dog may want to sleep or may be extremely “clingy”, not wanting to leave your side.  Later, they generally will be hungry, will play and act like nothing happened. 

Giving your dog a teaspoon of warmed natural vanilla ice cream after a seizure can give them a boost, helping them during the post ictal (recovery) stage.  Make SURE the ice cream you use is natural and has no added chemicals.  DO NOT USE ice cream sweetened with artificial sweetener such as Splenda.

Other considerations for the seizure dog and their owner

Dogs that have experienced a seizure that cannot be attributed to a drug reaction, high fever, or temporary illness (which would indicate a condition other than epilepsy) should NOT BE BRED. 

  • It is important to make sure it is known that the dog is prone to seizures if surgery or veterinary hospitalization is needed, or if the dog is to be boarded. 

  • Vaccination protocols should be altered to accommodate a dog that is prone to seizures, in order to avoid unnecessary assault to the immune system.

Some parting thoughts…

While it is the desire of a reputable breeder to breed healthy dogs, it is impossible to accurately predict which dogs or bloodlines will produce a dog that develops IE, and which ones won’t.  Often, seizure activity begins after a dog has already produced progeny.  In some cases, those progeny are grown and already in a breeding program.  As long as the breeder is forthcoming with known health information and is there for support and advice if and when it is needed, it shouldn’t be a cause for anger or finger pointing by anyone.

There are some marvelous groups dedicated to support and education for those living with dogs that suffer from seizure disorders.  These groups are an invaluable tool that should be used as often as needed.

I have included links to some of them.  There is also a Yahoo group for dogs with epilepsy.  The book listed below is also a great help for anyone living with a seizure dog.

 Canine Epilepsy  An Owner’s Guide to Living With and Without Seizures
Discusses seizure triggers such as diet, vaccines and chemicals; how to help dogs before and after; numerous treatments to reduce seizure activity.

http://www.canine-epilepsy-guardian-angels.com/

http://www.canine-epilepsy.net/

http://www.canine-epilepsy.com/

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