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Your usually happy-go-lucky pooch seems unsteady and confused. Then he flops to the floor. Even though he’s unconscious, he looks like he’s treading water. He’s having a seizure. Why is this happening, and what can you do?
If your dog has them often, he may have a seizure disorder. Another name for that is epilepsy. Abnormal, uncontrolled bursts of electrical activity in your dog’s brain cause seizures, affecting how he looks and how he behaves. This usually happens in one of the cerebral hemispheres but the electrical activity can spread out and involve other areas, including the midbrain. Seizures can look like a twitch or uncontrollable shaking and can last from less than a minute to several minutes.
What Can Cause Seizures in Dogs?
• Eating poison
• Liver disease
• Low or high blood sugar
• Kidney disease
• Electrolyte problems
• Anaemia
• Head injury
• Encephalitis
• Strokes
• Brain cancer
What Are the Symptoms of Seizures?
Symptoms can include collapsing, jerking, stiffening, muscle twitching, loss of consciousness, drooling, chomping, tongue chewing, or foaming at the mouth. Dogs can fall to the side and make paddling motions with their legs. They sometimes poop or pee during the seizure. Some dogs may look dazed, seem unsteady or confused, or stare off into space before a seizure.
Afterward, your dog may be disoriented, wobbly, or temporarily blind. He may walk in circles and bump into things. He might have a lot of drool on his chin and could be bleeding in his mouth if he bit himself. He may try to hide.
What Are the Types of Seizures?
The most common kind is the generalized seizure, also called a grand mal seizure. A dog can lose consciousness and convulse. The abnormal electrical activity happens throughout the brain. Generalized seizures usually last from a few seconds to a few minutes. A typical grand mal seizure is preceded by a period of altered behaviour, called the aura. During the aura dogs may be restless and anxious, cry out, demand affection, or seek seclusion. The actual seizure normally lasts less than two minutes, and is characterized by collapse with rigid extension of the legs. The dog becomes unconscious and may stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds. This is followed by rhythmic jerking of the legs (which resembles running or paddling). Some dogs also chomp, chew, drool, or urinate and defecate. As the dog regains consciousness there is a post seizure state characterized by disorientation and confusion. The dog may stumble into walls and appear blind. The post seizure state can persist for minutes or hours. Grand mal seizures are typical of epilepsy.
With a focal seizure, abnormal electrical activity happens in only part of the brain. Focal seizures can cause unusual movements in one limb or one side of the body. Sometimes they last only a couple of seconds. They may start as focal and then become generalized. A focal motor or partial seizure is one in which the jerking or twitching is limited (at least initially) to a particular part of the body. A focal seizure usually indicates a specific brain lesion, such as a scar, tumour, or abscess.
Seizures are commonly associated with brain injury, encephalitis, heat stroke, brain abscess, brain tumour, stroke, poisoning, kidney failure, or liver failure. Seizures associated with a concussion frequently occur weeks or months after the head injury and are caused by a focus of scar tissue in the brain.
Post encephalitic seizures occur three to four weeks after the onset of encephalitis. Distemper, in particular, is characterized by attacks that begin with chomping, tongue chewing, foaming at the mouth, head shaking, and blinking, all followed by a dazed look.
Post vaccination seizures have been described in puppies under 6 weeks of age following inoculation with a combined distemper-parvovirus vaccine. This is extremely rare with current vaccines.
A psychomotor seizure involves strange behaviour that only lasts a couple of minutes. Your dog may suddenly start attacking an imaginary object or chasing his tail. It can be tricky to tell psychomotor seizures from odd behaviour, but a dog that has them will always do the same thing every time he has a seizure.
Seizures from unknown causes are called idiopathic epilepsy. They usually happen in dogs between 6 months and 6 years old. Although any dog can have a seizure, idiopathic epilepsy is more common in border collies, Australian shepherds, Labrador retrievers, beagles, Belgian Tervurens, collies, and German shepherds.
A bitch may develop low blood calcium levels after whelping and have seizures. A sudden drop in blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) can also trigger a seizure. This occurs in new-born pups with cardiopulmonary syndrome. It can also occur in small-breed puppies who have not been fed adequately. A common cause of hypoglycaemia is giving too much insulin to a diabetic dog.
Common poisons that cause seizures are animal baits such as strychnine, antifreeze (ethylene glycol), lead, insecticides (organophosphates), and chocolate. Seizures caused by organophosphates are preceded by drooling and muscle twitching. Exposure to a spray, dip, or premise treatment suggests the diagnosis.
There are a number of conditions that, while not true seizures, are often mistaken for them. Bee stings, for example, can cause frenzied barking followed by fainting or collapse.
Cardiac arrhythmias can be mistaken for seizures because they cause loss of consciousness and collapse.
What Should I Do if My Dog Has a Seizure?
First, try to stay calm. If your dog is near something that could hurt him, like a piece of furniture or the stairs, gently slide him away. Stay away from your dog’s mouth and head; he could bite you. Do not put anything in his mouth. Dogs cannot choke on their tongues. If you can, time it.
If the seizure lasts for more than a couple of minutes, your dog is at risk of overheating. Turn a fan on your dog and put cold water on his paws to cool him down. Talk to your dog softly and gently touch him to assure him. Call your vet when the seizure ends.
If your dog has a seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes or if he has several in a row while he is unconscious, take him to a vet as soon as possible. The longer a seizure goes on, the higher a dog’s body temperature can rise, and he may have problems breathing. This can raise his risk of brain damage. Your vet may give your dog IV Valium to stop the seizure.
What Should I Expect When I Take My Dog to the Vet?
Your vet will want to do a thorough physical examination and get some lab work to look for the causes of your dog’s seizures. Your vet may prescribe medicines to control seizures, like phenobarbital or potassium bromide.
You can give your dog phenobarbital twice a day, but over time it can damage his liver. Dogs that take phenobarbital need blood tests about every 6 months.
Potassium bromide does not work its way through the liver, making it a better choice for young dogs that need medicine for life.
Always follow your vet’s instructions when you give your dog medicine. Do not ever let him miss a dose.
Pierre van Niekerk © 2015