One of the most frightening moments as a dog parent is noticing strange behavior and distress in our dogs and not knowing the cause. Especially in the case of seizures, it is often difficult to determine when a seizure is benign or a sign of an underlying dangerous health disorder. According to an article by Dr. Ernest Ward, seizures are one of the most common neurological conditions in dogs. They can be difficult to predict and may occur regularly or irregularly. They also do not discriminate by age or dog breed. If your dog is prone to seizures or has shown signs of odd behavior, it may be time to familiarize yourself with the facts and consider if you need to make a trip to your vet’s office.
A Personal Story
If you’ve read any of my prior articles, then you’ve already met Gracie and know that she has a very special place in our household as the “first-born” child of our pup children. She has always been a healthy and energetic dog. She loves to play fetch and has a practically limitless source of energy. However, Gracie did something very out of character one day that caught us completely off guard. In the middle of the day, Gracie woke up from a nap and suddenly fell from the bed. She darted around the room in an unorganized fashion, literally running into walls, until she finally became stiff and flopped down on the floor. Panicked, my husband held her until her shaking and stiffness went away. She slowly came back to reality, panting heavily, and seemed dazed at first, but within minutes, she was chasing the other dogs in the yard and wagging her tail as if the entire episode were just a dream. We weren’t sure what it was to begin with. Had she been poisoned? Was she sick? Was it a sugar issue? Months later, after we had seemingly shrugged the incident off as a fluke, the episode repeated itself. By this time, it was pretty clear that Gracie was having seizures. Though their frequency was very far between and generally lasted only a few minutes, I was scared to death! I finally talked to an emergency vet in town and learned that Gracie, in fact having seizures but she was okay. It wasn’t time for me to panic and for now, her seizures were normal.
But when does a seizure become something to worry about? This article will discuss the details of seizures in dogs, including types of seizures, common causes, and other burning questions that you may have as a concerned dog parent.
Types of Seizures
Generalized seizures, or grand mal seizures, are the most common type of seizure reported in dogs. These seizures are normally short lived and may happen over a number of seconds or several minutes, sometimes only a few seconds. Dogs affected by this type of seizure will have abnormal electrical activity spread throughout their brain, causing their entire body to react. Dogs with generalized seizures may also become unconscious temporarily.
Unlike generalized seizures, focal seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity occurring in certain “focal” points of the brain, rather than electrical activity spreading itself across the entire brain. Dogs suffering from a focal seizure may lose function of a single limb or respond on only one side of the body, instead of a general reaction such as full-body shaking. According to Pets WebMD some seizures may start as a focal seizures, meaning one area or part of the body is affected, and then become generalized seizures where the entire body and brain is affected.
Psychomotor seizures can be harder to notice because the symptoms may come across as completely benign behavior, like a dog chasing its tail for several minutes. More noticeable symptoms are unusual behaviors like attacking or dodging invisible objects or complete attention to something that isn’t there, such as staring at the wall or up at the ceiling. Whatever the symptom is that the psychomotor seizure causes, the dog will perform the same behavior every time.
What Does a Seizure Look Like?
From looking at the types of seizures we discussed above, it is clear that seizures can have more serious symptoms than others. In Gracie’s case, she normally exhibits confused behavior and then collapses, becomes stiff, drools, and trembles. Immediately following the seizure, she will often seem exhausted, but this only lasts for a few minutes before she’s back to her normal behavior. In all of these instances, she had been asleep before the seizure occurred.
More severe symptoms of seizures include:
- Excessive drooling
- Foaming at the mouth
- Urination or Defecation
According to Dr. Jeff Grognet, a writer for the American Kennel Club, dogs can have less obvious symptoms as well. Gracie’s usual seizure fits into the category of a “whole body seizure” or what we referred to earlier as a generalized or grand mal seizure, meaning her entire body is affected because all parts of her brain are receiving too much stimulation.
Less severe symptoms of seizures include:
- Staring into space
- Visual hallucinations
- Fits of repetitive behavior, such as non-stop tail chasing or barking
- Twitching on one side of the face
- Sporadic movement in a single limb
Less severe symptoms generally occur during psychomotor seizures. Dr. Grognet states that dog’s experiencing psychomotor seizures will appear as though they are seeing things – like all those moments you thought your dog was staring at ghosts. In Dr. Gorgnet’s example, a Schnauzer under his case would dodge invisible objects and then watch them travel around the room. In another example, a dog would suddenly stop what they are doing, such as walking across the room, to stare into space without any reason and then go on about their business like nothing happened. Focal seizures are also normally less severe in terms of symptoms since only specific points of the brain are affected, rather than the entire brain. Dogs suffering from focal seizures will lose control of specific areas of their body, such as one leg, the left side of their face, or stiffness or arching of the back on mostly one side of the body. Focal seizures are easy to pinpoint, despite being less severe than generalized seizures.
Common Causes for Seizures
There are a number of things that can cause a dog to have seizures. According to Dr. Ward, the most common cause of seizures in dogs is an inherited disorder known as idiopathic epilepsy. For dogs suffering from epilepsy, the trigger is the same. The exact origin of the disorder is unknown. Diseases like liver disease and kidney disease can also cause seizures. More severe causes for seizures in dogs are brain cancer or eating poison. Trauma to the brain, like a strike to the head or a severe fall, and brain tumors may also cause seizures. Less serious causes for seizures can be severe anemia, electrolyte imbalances, or blood sugar issues. Excessive stress or anxiety can also lead to seizures. Some pet owners have even reported that simply changing their dog’s diet stopped their dog from having more seizures. In one example by Dr. Grognet, a dog became severely anemic because onions in the dog owner’s homemade dog food were destroying the dog’s red blood cells. By removing onions from the dog’s food, the dog stopped having seizures. The brain began naturally receiving oxygen as it was meant to. It’s important to watch and keep note of your dog’s behavior during seizures and let your vet know what you commonly see. Having this background information will help your vet in determining the cause for your dog’s seizures.
How Does a Typical Seizure Occur in the Brain?
Dr. Ward explains in his article that seizures normally occur in three phases:
The first phase, known as the pre-ictal phase, is a time of unnatural behavior where the dog may appear frightened, anxious, or exceptionally clingy. The dog may excessively wander about the house, salivate, or whine. This occurs before the onset of symptoms from the seizure. It may seem like your dog is trying to tell you something. They most certainly are, though the dog may not intentionally be aware of what they’re trying to say.
The second phase, called the ictal phase, is the time when the dog is actually experiencing the seizure and this can last seconds or minutes. Dogs can have generalized seizures during this time, and may shake or lose control of all body functions. Dogs who do not experience generalized seizures may act dazed or mentally unaware. If the seizure lasts for more than five minutes, then the dog is having a prolonged seizure, and prolonged seizures can be life threatening or lead to more serious issues.
The post-ictal phase is the time following a seizure when the dog will be confused, restless, or disoriented. The duration of time after a seizure where your dog exhibits symptoms is not dependent on how severe of a seizure your dog experienced. These are normal symptoms are immediately following the seizure.
Being able to recognize the three different phases of seizure will help you to record and keep track of your dog’s behavior before, during, and after the seizure. If you are able to recognize the pre-ictal phase, then you’ll be able to better prepare and act if your dog continues into the ictal phase.
Is My Dog In Pain During a Seizure?
Though seizures can be extremely scary for any pet owner to witness, dog’s do not suffer any pain during them. The only negative side effect that your dog might experience during a seizure is feeling confused or anxious. However, if your dog is having a prolonged seizure, your dog’s body temperature will start to quickly rise and put them in danger of overheating. You will need to get your dog to a vet immediately if overheating occurs or if your dog experiences more than one seizure in a 24 hour period.
Though they can be scary to witness, especially if your dog suffers from generalized seizures, keep in mind that your dog is not suffering any pain from the seizure itself. Do your best to stay calm and be ready to act if overheating becomes a potential issue.
What Should I Do During a Seizure?
The first and maybe most important thing to do during a seizure is remain calm. Remember that you dog is not in any pain, though it may be scary to witness or your dog may seem upset. Make a note of when the seizure started so that you can talk to your vet immediately if the seizure is lasting longer than several minutes. If possible, use your phone to record the seizure. It will help your vet better understand your dog’s symptoms. Try to move away any furniture near your dog. If your dog is close to stairs, try to gently pull them away. Talk soothingly to your pet and gently hold them until the seizure subsides. Do not put your hands around your dog’s mouth or attempt to move their tongue. Dogs cannot swallow their tongue, despite the common belief, and your dog may unintentionally bite you.
If your dog’s seizure is lasting longer than several minutes, then you will need to start trying to cool your dog’s body temperature with wet towels or cold water. You can apply the wet towels or cold water to your dog’s groin, stomach, neck, and paws. Immediately take your dog to a vet once the seizure stops to make sure your dog is no longer at risk of overheating. If your dog has another seizure within the same 24 hour period, you will need to quickly get your dog to a vet for examination. For generalized short-term seizures, it may be helpful to keep notes of your dog’s symptoms, abnormal behavior, and how often or long the seizures occur. Any detailed information will be helpful to a vet.
If your dog is having a seizure, stay calm, and keep your dog away from furniture and stairs. Wet towels or cold water will help keep your dog’s temperature down if your dog starts to overheat. If overheating occurs or if your dog suffers from more than one seizure in a 24 hour period, contact your vet immediately.
What to Expect From Your Vet Visit
If and when you decide to take your dog to the vet for seizures, your vet will perform a physical examination, including blood and urine tests. This will help your vet know if your dog is suffering from a underlying disease that may be causing seizures, such as kidney disease. Further testing may be conducted if the initial blood work exams come back normal. If your dog has seizures only periodically and far between, then there is likely nothing to worry about. Treatment for seizures generally occurs only if your dog is suffering from multiple seizures every month or if the seizures are prolonged. If your vet determines that medication is needed, this will likely be a long term change for your dog.
The emergency vet explained to us that Gracie’s seizures are likely caused by anxiety or stress. The notes we had about Gracie’s prior seizures were helpful background information for the vet on duty. Any videos, notes, or other type of information that you can provide your vet are important for helping your vet fully understand your dog’s physical exam results. As you can see from the photo. Gracie was pretty solemn about being at the vet overnight, but we were thankful to hear that she was healthy!
In my personal experience, Gracie’s seizures have not risen to the level of needing treatment. Gracie is six years old and has had only a handful of seizures, all lasting only a few minutes. According to the emergency vet that I spoke to about Gracie’s seizures, she likely suffers from anxiety induced seizures. Gracie has a nervous tick where she persistently licks a spot on her left leg, so the idea that Gracie suffers from stress or anxiety was not a surprise to me.
I am grateful that Gracie has only had a few seizures in her entire lifetime. Now that I know what Gracie’s typical behavior is prior to a seizure, I can quickly move her away to a quiet place to keep her calm. Recently, Gracie showed symptoms of the pre-ictal phase of a seizure: excessive drooling, panting, and general distress. I moved her into my bedroom, laid her on the bed with me, and turned off all the lights. Though Gracie likely suffered from a mild neurological episode, she did not have a full generalized seizure, despite her past experiences.
In my opinion, reacting quickly and keeping your dog calm are two critical steps to alleviating the possibility of an imminent seizure and taking care of your dog if the seizure take full effect. It’s important to keep track of your dog’s behavior and stay calm in the moments where you need to react to comfort and keep your dog safe. The below video is an excellent interview by a veterinarian on the subject of seizures that summarizes everything that we have talked about in this article.
Jen Jones is a professional dog trainer and behavior specialist with more than 25 years of experience. As the founder of ‘Your Dog Advisor’ and the ‘Canine Connection’ rehabilitation center, she applies a holistic, empathetic approach, aiming to address root causes rather than merely treating symptoms.
Well known for her intuitive and compassionate approach, Jen adopts scientifically-proven, reward-based methods, encouraging positive reinforcement over punishment. Jen specializes in obedience training, behavior modification, and puppy socialization. Her innovative methods, particularly in addressing anxiety and aggression issues, have been widely recognized. Jen has worked with many of the world’s leading dog behaviorists and in her free time volunteers with local animal shelters and rescue groups.