Canine Seizures

What is a Seizure?
Causes of Seizures
Treatment of Canine Seizures
When to seek emergency care

It can be very frightening to see your dog have a seizure. The good news is that a seizure is generally not painful or harmful to a dog as long as it is relatively short. In this article, Dr. Marie discusses what can cause a seizure, when to go to a vet and what kind of treatments your vet may suggest. If you have questions about your dog's condition, you can Ask Dr. Marie a vet question.

What is a Seizure?

A seizure can happen to any age or breed of dog. It happens when there is an abnormal discharge of electrical impulses in the brain. Seizures can be either "generalized" (affecting the whole body) or "partial" (affecting just one or more body parts such as just the face).

Here is a video of a dog having a generalized seizure. Please note that this video can be disturbing to watch. It is very difficult watching a dog have a seizure, but I am posting this to help others who may not know if their dog is having a seizure or not:

This video shows a dog having a partial seizure. The dog is still conscious and aware of its surroundings:

It is common for dogs to have something called an "aura" before a seizure. When this happens the dog can show signs of discomfort such as whining, panting, pacing or agitation. Prior to the aura, some dogs can have some moodiness or discomfort for even a few hours before the seizure. It is not uncommon for a dog to be quiet or lethargic for several hours after a seizure as well.

Causes of Seizures

There are several possible causes for seizures. Often we cannot find the cause. If we have ruled out all of the possible causes of seizures and don't have a diagnosis, then we call the dog epileptic. Here are some possible causes for seizures:

  • Brain lesions such as a tumor (most common in an older dog) or scarring (i.e. as a result of a previous virus such as distemper virus).
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This should not occur in a healthy animal. It can happen if a diabetic dog has been given too much insulin or if a dog has a pancreatic tumor.
  • An infection in the brain (encephalitis)
  • Kidney or liver disease (i.e. toxin, kidney failure, liver failure, liver shunt)
  • Hypocalcemia (low calcium) - seen mostly in nursing dogs.
  • Severe head trauma
  • Epilepsy - This condition is most commonly seen in certain breeds including Border Collies, Dalmatians, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Siberian huskies, Labrador Retrievers and St. Bernards.
seizure treatment

Your vet will help you to decide if or when your dog needs treatment for seizures. If your dog has a mild seizure (i.e. <2 mins) infrequently your vet may decide not to put your dog on medication. Personally, if I have a patient who has several seizures a month, or if the seizures are longer than 5 minutes or if the seizures are very uncomfortable for the dog then I will talk about treatment.

There are several medications that your vet may prescribe for seizures. The goal of treatment is to reduce the frequency of the seizures. In some dogs, medication stops the seizures altogether, but not always.

I will primarily use a medication called phenobarbital. This medication is generally safe but it is not recommended for animals that have problems with their liver. Once an animal has been on phenobarbital for a couple of weeks then we do a blood test to determine if they are getting the right amount. Once we have established that the right dose is being given we do a phenobarbital level every 6-12 months. We may occasionally check liver enzymes as well.

In some cases we give a medication called potassium bromide (KBr). In my experience, this medication does not tend to work as well. However, it does not tend to have as many side effects as phenobarbital. In some animals with seizures that are hard to control we will prescribe BOTH phenobarbital and potassium bromide.

There are other medications that your vet may prescribe for seizures as well

When is a seizure an emergency?

Even though a seizure can be hard to watch, in most cases a seizure is not an emergency. I usually recommend calling your vet if a seizure is lasting more than 5 minutes. A dog that is seizuring and not coming out of it may have a condition called status epilepticus in which the seizures do not stop. This is a serious emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention. Your veterinarian will administer intravenous medication to help stop the seizures.

Similarly, if a dog is having clusters of seizures throughout the day then this warrants a trip to the emergency vet.

Search Ask A Vet Question:

Dr. Marie was quick to respond and thorough in suggesting treatment for my cat. I am so thankful- I have been so worried about my cat. Now I have additional options to discuss with my vet.

The service was incredibly fast and the vet's suggestions were right on target. This was incredibly helpful given that none of the vets in my area, mine now included, will take off hours calls now.

Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

Is an online vet visit just as good as a trip to your veterinarian? No! But, many times, asking an online veterinarian a question can help save you money. While Dr. Marie can't officially diagnose your pet or prescribe medications, she can often advise you on whether a vet visit is necessary. You can also ask Dr. Marie for a second opinion on your pet's condition.