Seizures are very frightening to dog owners and are also terrifying to the dogs as well, depending on the severity or intensity of the seizure. Epilepsy, a general term for a seizure disorder, can be either idiopathic, which means that the exact cause is not known but is likely an inherited or genetic condition, or secondary, which means the seizures are the result of some other type of medical condition or trauma. Regardless of what type of epileptic seizure the dog is having, it is due to abnormal brain activity that is transmitted through the cerebral cortex to the muscles of the body, resulting in the spasms and behaviors that are seen. Secondary epilepsy may be caused by parasitic infestations, drugs, toxins, diseases, hormonal imbalances, and nutritional deficiencies.
There are four stages to an epileptic seizure in dogs, regardless of the type or intensity of the seizure. In very minor seizures known as petit mal seizures the effects of the abnormal brain activity can be very minor and may even be missed by the owner, while in grand mal or large seizures one or all of the stages may be very obvious.
The first stage of the seizure is known as the prodome, which is often noted by a change in the dog's normal behavior. They may be more restless or sleep more, refuse food or even change from a friendly dog to a more aloof and isolated animal. This stage can last from a very brief few minutes up to a week or more. As the brain activity becomes increasingly more abnormal, the second phase or the aura stage becomes obvious. Humans with epilepsy report seeing auras or halos at this stage in many cases, hence the name. Dogs often will bark, seem to need more attention, vomit, appear nervous, urinate frequently, salivate excessively, and even continually pace during this phase.
The ictus is the actual seizure and is the most frightening to observe, although the dog his or herself may not be aware of what is happening at this point. In grand mal seizures the dog may fall over on its side, pant, howl, paddle his or her legs, shake excessively, and work the jaws like they were chewing something. They may whine and cry or even growl and bark during this stage. Typically it is short in duration but can seem to be going on forever as you are observing.
The ictal is the exhaustion phase right after the seizure. It can include behaviors such as pacing, drinking excessive amounts of water, staggering, appearing to have temporary loss of hearing or sight, or just sleeping without waking.
Medications are the most effective way to control epilepsy. These medications are given on a regular basis to help balance the various neurological functions of the cerebral cortex as well as control any existing medical conditions that may be leading to secondary types of epilepsy. It is very important to not try to limit the dog's movement when he or she is having a seizure and to never put your hand in their mouth at this time as this can lead to serious injury. Report any seizure activity to the vet and schedule an immediate appointment. Some dogs will have only one seizure in their life that never repeats, while others may have chronic seizures.
The breeds that are most prone to idiopathic or inherited epilepsy include Beagles, German Shepherds, Keeshonds, Golden Retrievers, Boxers, Irish Setters, Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, Dalmatians, and Collies. With secondary epilepsy any breed can develop seizures when one or more of the contributing factors are present.