Seizures in our pets can be a terrifying thing to witness, but knowing what causes them may help you fare better through such a scary event.
Seizures are the most common neurologic problem seen in dogs. The most common type of seizure is the generalized or grand mal. Simply put, a seizure is abnormal bursts of signals from the brain to the muscles. This can lead to a loss of consciousness, muscle stiffness or tremors and uncontrolled urination and defecation. Typically, a dog experiencing a grand mal seizure will be lying on his side, exhibiting a paddling motion with his legs. As stated before, he may lose control of his bladder or bowels and will likely drool profusely.
What happens during a grand mal seizure?
There are usually three stages:
Seizures may be preceded by a pre-seizure aura, and during this time, your dog may appear quiet or clingy. Generally, the pre-seizure aura lasts a few minutes but can last for hours.
Seizures typical last 30 seconds to two minutes, although it certainly can feel like much longer, especially if you are witnessing your first dog seizure.
Grand mal seizures are followed by a post-ictal period, which is a period of recovery. It can vary in range from 30 minutes to a couple of days. During the post-ictal phase, the animal may act blind or confused, be hyperactive (or excessively sleepy) and may display abnormal eating behaviors.
In general, seizures are not life-threatening, provided that they are short and infrequent. Those lasting more than four or five minutes or those that come one on top of another (called cluster seizures) may be dangerous for your dog and should be considered an emergency.
What causes seizures?
Seizures can be caused by numerous things. If your dog is young (under one year of age), infection or inflammation of the brain may be the cause. A young toy breed dog is also prone to low blood sugar, which can manifest as hypoglycemic seizures. Middle aged dogs between two and five years old usually have seizures with no known cause. Veterinarians call this type of seizure disorder “idiopathy epilepsy.” Older dogs may have a more dangerous cause, such as a brain tumor or organ failure.
The most common cause for generalized seizures is idiopathic epilepsy, which is a diagnosis of exclusion. Because there is no specific test for idiopathic epilepsy, we have to exclude other reasons for seizures (such as infection, toxins or tumors) before we feel comfortable calling them epilepsy. Your veterinarian will likely want to do some blood work on your pet, and may offer an MRI to rule out lesions in the central nervous system. Having pet insurance that covers emergency care can afford you the financial flexibility to help make sure your pet receives the best possible treatment, no matter how severe the case.
How are seizures treated?
Treatment depends on the cause. If a tumor is found, surgery can often be performed at a referral center. The treatment of idiopathic epilepsy centers on decreasing the severity and frequency. Keeping a detailed record of your pet’s seizures in a log will help keep track of the frequency and allow you to recognize changes in patterns. Be sure to update your veterinarian each time your pet has a seizure, as your pet’s record will need to be updated. You and your veterinarian can discuss the details of the medical options available for controlling them if they become too frequent.
While seizures may cause your heart rate to race, remember that your pet is in no pain. Take note of the time so that you can track the duration. Do not try to comfort your pet during a seizure, as this can lead to unintended bites. When it has passed, make sure your pet has plenty of fresh food and water available as well as a safe environment in which to recover.
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