What You Should Know About Canine Epilepsy

lab mix puppy sleeping on yellow-striped blanket

Your dog relies on you to provide and care for them. But, they often can’t tell you what’s wrong with them – you have to figure it out from their behavior. Knowing what to look for to know when you need to get to the vet can be a big help in providing the best care for your dog. Here’s what you should know about canine epilepsy:

What is Canine Epilepsy?

Canine epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes seizures in dogs. It is generally caused by an abnormality in the brain. It is one of the most common neurological conditions in dogs and it can be serious. The best thing you can do is to be there for your dog, take notes of symptoms and behavior, and consult your veterinarian for treatment.

3 Types of Canine Epilepsy

Although a dog can experience seizures as a reaction to something else, like toxic food, canine epilepsy is specifically due to an abnormality of the brain. Generally, there are three different types of canine epilepsy that are classified based on the cause and type of seizures.

1. Idiopathic Epilepsy

Idiopathic epilepsy is also referred to as genetic epilepsy because it can be inherited. This type of canine epilepsy is not due to an identifiable structural problem in the brain, but is assumed to originate from a genetic source.

Dogs experiencing repeated seizures that return a normal neurologic exam where there are no reactive seizures and no known structural abnormalities in the brain and where the origin is considered to be genetic are considered to have idiopathic epilepsy.

2. Structural Epilepsy

Structural epilepsy refers to repeated seizures that are caused by structural problems in the brain. This type of canine epilepsy is diagnosed when there are repeated seizures and there is an identifiable structural abnormality in the brain.

This often shows up as a malformation of the brain or observable damage to the brain. It is also sometimes referred to as secondary epilepsy because it can be caused by a primary condition or event like trauma to the head, a tumor, or a different disease.

3. Epilepsy of Unknown Cause

The final type is for canine epilepsy that occurs from an unknown cause. More specifically, epilepsy of unknown cause is diagnosed when there are repeated seizures and suspected structural damage. Usually, in these cases, a structural abnormality is suspected, but cannot be, or has not yet been, identified in an evaluation.

Symptoms of Epilepsy in Dogs

The biggest symptom of canine epilepsy is repeated seizures that are not a reaction to ingesting something toxic. Prior to a seizure, your dog may seem disoriented, they may be whining unusually, exhibiting nervousness, drooling excessively, or they may not show any symptoms beforehand.

During a seizure, your dog may exhibit involuntary muscle movements, a loss or increase in muscle tone, involuntary bodily functions, and also changes in behavior. This could manifest in facial twitches, “paddling” of legs, chewing movements or lip-smacking, salivation, defecation, urination, vomiting, fear-based behavior, attention-seeking behavior, and more. In some cases, dog trancing can seem like a seizure, but usually is unrelated unless it is associated with an underlying condition like canine epilepsy.

Going through a seizure can also take a lot out of your dog. You want to make sure you contact your vet after every episode. You also want to be aware that your dog may have some limitations. They may be weak or have trouble moving for a couple of hours or even a couple of days after they’ve had a seizure.

9 Types of Seizure Classifications

There are various classifications used when describing seizures and more than one is often needed to describe what is happening. These classifications deal with the location of the seizures, how frequent they are, how long they last, and what is affected when they happen.

As scary as it is to see your dog going through one, it’s important to be with your dog, protect them, and also pay attention to what’s going on so you can describe it accurately to your vet. These descriptions go a long way in making an accurate diagnosis. Here are several types of seizure classifications to know:

1. Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures affect both sides of the brain, so you’ll see symptoms appear on both sides of your dog’s body. Involuntary muscle movements on both sides of the body are common with this type of seizure.

There may also be a sudden loss or sudden stiffening of muscles as they twitch and seize. Usually, a dog will not be as aware of their environment during a generalized seizure and they may salivate, urinate, and/or defecate involuntarily.

2. Focal Seizures

Focal seizures can become generalized if they spread to both sides of the brain. However, focal seizures are characterized by their occurrence on one side of the brain and usually in a discrete area. As such, symptoms usually appear on only one side of the body or in a specific part of the body.

Abnormal and involuntary motor activity, like chewing movements, facial twitches, and paddling limbs, are common in this type of seizure. You may also see dilated pupils as well as attention-seeking behavior or fear-based behavior.

During one of these seizures, a dog may or may not be aware of their environment. So, you can see symptoms like vomiting, salivation, urination, defecation, and more. In some cases, it could cause a dog to “zone out” and could be one of the potential reasons why dogs stare at the wall.

3. Atonic Seizures

Atonic seizures refer to a sudden loss of muscle tone where limbs and muscles may suddenly go limp. It lasts several seconds or more and does not occur after muscle contractions or stiffening.

4. Myoclonic Seizures

Myoclonic seizures refer to muscles or groups of muscles that are contracting. Muscle contractions are usually brief and sudden.

5. Tonic Seizures

Tonic seizures refer to muscles that sustain an increase in tone. This usually appears as a sudden stiffening of muscles or groups of muscles that can last for several minutes.

6. Tonic-Clonic Seizures

Tonic-clonic seizures are characterized by muscle stiffening followed by jerking. The jerking is referred to as clonic movements and these are generally shorter.

7. Cluster Seizures

Cluster seizures refer to a group of seizures that occur more frequently than normal. Clinically, this is considered as two seizures or more within 24 hours.

8. Status Epilepticus

Status epilepticus also refers to the frequency of seizures and is a serious condition. It is characterized by multiple seizures that occur one right after the other. There isn’t a break between them and, oftentimes, a single seizure lasts more than five minutes.

9. Refractory Epilepsy

Refractory epilepsy refers to seizures that happen during treatment. Specifically, the dog is on doses of antiepileptic medication and the seizures still occur. Unfortunately, this usually means the medication isn’t working or has stopped being effective.

How to Treat Canine Epilepsy

Treatment for canine epilepsy will vary based on the type of epilepsy, type and severity of seizures, your dog, and more. It’s important to consult your vet if your dog has a seizure and at the first sign of the disease.

Depending on what is happening, your vet may prescribe antiepileptic medication. There are several types available and it may take some time to find the right type and dosage for treating your dog’s epilepsy. They may also recommend other therapeutic care like diet changes.

Watching your dog go through a seizure is terrifying. It’s definitely scary for your dog too. The best thing you can do is to be their hero and protector. Keep them from getting hurt during the episode while also paying attention to what is happening.

Then, comfort them as much as possible afterward and call your vet for next steps. Keep notes. The more accurate information you can provide to your vet, the better they will be able to move through the next steps for diagnosis and treatment.