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How to Handle Seizures in Dogs and Cats

What is a seizure?
A seizure is commonly known as a convulsion or a fit caused by a sudden surge of abnormal electrical activities originating from the front portion of the brain. It often presents as uncontrolled movements of the body (such as twitching, shaking or spasms) and sometimes loss of consciousness. Occasionally, seizures can result in the loss of bowel or bladder control and vocalisation.

Seizures can occur due to intracranial (i.e. relating to the brain or central nervous system) or extracranial (i.e. not related to the brain or central nervous system) abnormalities. Some intracranial causes include brain tumour, stroke, head trauma and degenerative disorders. Some extracranial causes include low blood glucose, liver disease and toxicities.

Recurrent seizures are known as epilepsy. Idiopathic epilepsy is most common in dogs, however the underlying cause is unknown. Dogs with idiopathic epilepsy will usually have their first seizure between the ages of 1-5 years old but it can happen in dogs that are younger or older.

What do I do if my dog/ cat starts to seizure?
Remember to always take your furbaby to see a vet if your furbaby experiences their first seizure. It is important to find out the cause of the seizure and follow your vet’s advice if no treatment is indicated.

Seizures that are self-limiting (lasting between 60 to 90 seconds) will not require treatment. If your furbaby’s seizures last for more than 2 minutes or if there are repetitive seizures within a short period of time without recovery in between, please take them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. The body temperature can rise rapidly the longer the seizure goes on, which can lead to multiorgan failure.

If your dog is having a seizure, try to gently slide them away from any furniture/ objects that may cause them any injury. Take care not to put your hands anywhere close to their face as they may bite you in this altered mental state.

If you can, try to time the seizure and write down any abnormal behaviour (circling, disorientation, staring into space or behavioural changes) associated during and after the seizure has ended.

How do we diagnose the cause of seizures?
To diagnose the cause of seizure or epilepsy, your veterinarian will begin by collecting a detailed history as well as performing a detailed physical and neurological exam. A full blood test and urine test is usually the next step to help rule out any extracranial causes of seizures.

Brain imaging via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is the next step to investigate possible intracranial lesions. Collection of spinal fluid via a spinal tap and evaluation of the spinal fluid may be indicated depending on the findings of the MRI. A general anaesthesia is required for these procedures to be performed.

DNA testing for known genetic neurodegenerative diseases may be recommended for certain breeds like Belgium Shepherds and Border Collie.

Idiopathic epilepsy occurs when the inciting cause cannot be determined. This is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means all other possible causes of seizures must be ruled out first.

How are seizures treated?
During an emergency, your veterinarian will likely administer diazepam rectally or intravenously to stop the seizure. Dogs with less than 2 events of seizures within the past 6 months may not require anti-seizure medications unless they display a continuous seizure or repetitive seizures without recovery between lasting for more than 5 minutes. However, recurrent seizures or epilepsy may require life-long management with anticonvulsant medications.

It is very unlikely to achieve a complete absence of seizures with anti-seizure medication. The goal of anti-seizure medication is to reduce the frequency and severity of seizures, as well as improving the animal’s quality of life. Approximately 30% of dogs will develop resistance to a single drug and will require a combination of drugs or a change of drugs to manage their epilepsy. When commencing on certain types of anti-seizure drugs, a blood test to evaluate the drug concentration in the blood and the animal’s liver function is recommended every 6-12 months.

Most dogs and cats with seizures can live relatively normal and happy lives. However, uncontrolled, severe epilepsy can shorten the lifespan of your furbaby. Please discuss with your veterinarian if you are concerned about your furbaby’s seizures/ epilepsy so that we can assist you in formulating the best plan for your furbaby.