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Seizures in Dogs – Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Picture of a Labrador Retriever

Seizures in dogs can have several different causes, but one of the most common ones is idiopathic epilepsy. We wrote an entire article on epilepsy in dogs and we suggest that you take the time to read that one, as well. 

In this post, we’ll look at what seizures look like, what other causes they have besides epilepsy, what you can do in case your dog has one, and how they can be treated at the vet clinic or at home. 

Causes

While epilepsy can be genetic, the fact of the matter is that dogs can have seizures because of a variety of reasons. Severe anemia and low blood sugar are two of the most common causes, but so are cancer (more specifically, brain tumors), trauma to the brain, as well as a variety of neurotoxic substances. 

Seizures can also be developed because of strokes, electrolyte problems, kidney or liver disease, as well as eating poison. Rat poison, specifically the one that contains bromethalin, can cause symptoms such as lethargy, tremors, anxiety, impaired coordination, paralysis of the hind legs, vomiting, and seizures.  

As you can see, there are multiple things that can lead to a seizure, so it’s not a good idea to immediately make the assumption that your dog is suffering from epilepsy. 

Here are some things that aren’t related to epilepsy and that can cause seizures in dogs.

Food:

Rodenticides or insecticides:

  • Metaldehyde
  • Zinc phosphide
  • Strychnine
  • Bromethalin

Plants

Illicit drugs

  • Cocaine
  • Synthetic cannabinoids
  • Cannabis
  • Amphetamines

Medications (can only cause seizures in some dogs or situations)

  • Ivermectin
  • Fluorouracil cream
  • Isoniazid
  • Ibuprofen
  • Metronidazole
  • Diphenhydramine
  • Procaine Penicillin G
  • Phenylbutazone
  • Any drugs that can cause hypoglycemia

Symptoms

Most seizures can be generalized or focal. Sometimes, they can last for several seconds, but they can also be longer. Focal seizures can turn into generalized seizures. 

The symptoms that announce the emergence of a seizure are extremely varied. The dog might collapse, stiffen, jerk, his/her muscles might twitch, or might lose consciousness. Tongue chewing or foaming at the mouth is another common clinical sign, as is drooling or chomping. 

Some dogs can fall to the side and make incessant paddling motions with their legs. The seizure can be strong enough to make them pee or poop. 

Other dogs are confused, unsteady, or dazed, and might stare off into space. The dog can also be a little wobbly and disoriented, walk in circles or just bump into things. Other dogs might try to hide.  

Diagnosis

The vet has to distinguish between epilepsy and another potential cause. In many cases, the dog will be administered a universal antidote such as atropine so as to rule out the intoxication probability. 

Since most seizures don’t happen in the presence of the veterinarian, it’s highly recommended for you to capture the episode on video. Try to make things as easy as possible for your canine friend, so ensure that he or she doesn’t get hurt because of the clinical manifestations. Avoid touching your dog while he/she has a seizure because you don’t know what you can expect. 

Lab and biochemical tests can be used to reveal some reasons. For example, they can determine low blood sugar, a fatty liver, kidney and liver failure, an infectious disease with the pathogen present in the animal’s blood, a variety of systemic diseases, as well as viral and fungal ones. 

Treatment

If the dog has eaten rat poison and the seizure has passed, the vet could try to induce forced vomiting or administer activated charcoal. This works as an osmotic cathartic to release the animal’s bowels. IV fluid flushing is usually necessary, as well, and the vet can prescribe anti-seizure medication and muscle relaxants. In an episode of rat poisoning, the treatment typically lasts for several weeks.

If the seizures are caused by epilepsy, long-term treatment might be necessary. There are four medications commonly used in the treatment of seizures. 

Phenobarbital can be given twice a day. The effects of this drug have to be monitored twice a year. Potassium bromide is another choice, but it has been associated with pancreatitis and sedation, as well as bromism (bromide toxicity). 

Levetiracetam and zonisamide are two newer medications that have been used in the past decade in humans. These have few known side effects and they haven’t been found to produce damage on the liver. Levetiracetam is even safe to use in dogs that have a compromised liver or kidney function. It is expensive and its efficiency is still under evaluation. 

Zonisamide is similar to levetiracetam, but it does have several side effects, too, from decreased appetite to ataxia. It could also contribute to urinary problems or liver damage, but none of these two have been proven to date. 

In any case, whatever the choice of therapy, it should always be initiated by a veterinarian. Try to avoid using medication that you don’t know the side effects of or that you have heard works. 

When is treatment necessary?

If the seizures are linked with epilepsy, the therapy might be initiated. Treatment is generally begun in situations where the animal experiences a cluster of seizures with one being closely followed by another or in case the dog has more than one seizure per month. 

Therapy might also be necessary when the seizures are rare, but they have a long duration or are severe. 

What breeds are more predisposed to developing seizures?

There are some breeds and dog family lines that have been found to be at a higher risk of developing seizures compared to others. These are: 

What to do when your dog has a seizure

Try to stay calm. As difficult as it might be, this is important for yourself and your dog’s health. If you are lucky enough to be with someone else at the time, ask them to record the incident. 

Try to keep your dog away from places where he/she can get hurt, such as the stairs, for instance. If the seizure isn’t severe, place a cushion under your pooch’s head. If the seizure lasts for more than two to three minutes, the animal risks becoming overheated, so try to cool your pet with wet towels or cold water.

Get in touch with your vet as soon as possible, even after the dog has come out of the seizure. Try to pay as much attention as possible to the date, time, and length of the seizure, and keep a journal with all of this information. Think of things that might have caused the seizure, whether that be trauma, exposure to toxic substances, or a shock, and tell the vet. 

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