Cat scolding a dog

Managing Your Pet’s Seizures

Seizures—sometimes called fits or convulsions—happen when your pet experiences sudden surges of uncontrollable, mild to violent muscle spasms caused by temporary disturbances of normal brain function. 

Here are a few facts about seizures:

  • Both cats and dogs can have seizures.
  • Your pet will not swallow its tongue during a seizure. 
  • Seizures are not painful unless the thrashing about results in injury.
  • Seizures aren’t contagious.
  • Seizures are not life-threatening so long as they last for less than 5 minutes and happen only once within a 24-hour period.
  • Seizures that last longer than 20 minutes or those occurring in multiple clusters may cause brain damage.

Seizures can be a one-time occurrence, or they can recur with varying frequency at regular or random intervals. They can last for a few seconds, minutes or even hours. 

Possible causes of one-time seizures:

  • Metabolic disturbance or diseases
  • Head trauma
  • Low blood sugar
  • Severe fever
  • Poisoning
  • Brain tumors
  • Liver or kidney problems
  • Electrolyte imbalances

Recurring seizures can indicate epilepsy if all other causes are ruled out. Epilepsy is the most common chronic neurological disorder in veterinary medicine, affecting as many as 1% of dogs and 2% of cats.

Types of Seizures

We classify seizures as either focal or generalized.

A focal seizure—sometimes referred to as a partial seizure—originates in a small area of the cerebral cortex and impacts specific body parts in a variety of ways. Symptoms may appear as twitching on the side of the face or eyelid, loud vocalizations, excessive drooling, aggression, loss of leg function, abnormal head or neck movements, staring off into space, chewing motions or being unable to get up without help.

Generalized seizures involve both sides of the brain and affect the pet’s entire body. We further classify generalized seizures as grand mal (French for “big illness”) or petit mal (“small illness”).

Grand mal seizures are the more common and recognizable type, with signs and symptoms including:

  • Falling to one side
  • Uncontrollable muscle movements
  • Loss of bowel and/or bladder control
  • Loss of consciousness

Grand mal seizures usually last less than five minutes.

As the name suggests, petit mal seizures are not nearly as severe as grand mal seizures and may even occur without being noticed. Your pet may stare off into space, seem confused, chew imaginary gum or swat at imaginary flies while having a petit mal seizure. 

What to Do if Your Pet Has a Seizure

Seizures can be disturbing to watch, but your best response is to stay calm and observe what is happening. 

  • Don’t touch or pick up your seizing pet unless he or she needs to be moved to prevent a fall or head injury. If you need to move your pet, take the collar or the hind legs and gently drag him or her away from the hazard.
  • Keep your hands and face away from your pet’s mouth to avoid being bitten.
  • Protect the seizing pet from children and other pets.
  • Be prepared to report how your pet behaved immediately before, during and after the seizure. If there are multiple seizures, note the date, time, duration and description of each one. 

The most important thing to do is time the seizure. If it lasts less than 5 minutes, there’s no need to seek immediate veterinary care. Just call us during regular business hours to let us know the seizure happened and to set up an appointment to evaluate possible causes. 

If a seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes or if your pet has multiple seizures within a short time—called cluster seizures—your pet needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately. If this happens during our business hours, call us to determine how best to get your pet the needed care in a timely way. If possible, we will work you in among the day’s scheduled appointments. If we are unable to care for your pet right away, we will recommend visiting an emergency clinic. 

How We Treat Seizures

A brief, one-time seizure lasting no longer than 3 to 5 minutes and followed by immediate recovery may not require treatment.

For recurring seizures, while we’d like to eliminate them entirely, a more realistic treatment goal is to lessen their frequency, duration and severity by prescribing anticonvulsant drugs.  

All oral anticonvulsants take time to build up in your pet’s system before they begin to affect the brain’s susceptibility to seizures. Failure to control seizures before the drug has time to take effect does not mean the drug is not working or the dose should be changed. The length of time needed depends on the drug. Some medications take several weeks to reach therapeutic levels. 

Most anticonvulsants require twice-daily dosing, though there are a few that require only once-a-day dosing. Some require dosing every 8 hours. Your veterinarian may recommend keeping a rescue drug—like valium to be administered rectally—on hand at home to use when a severe seizure is underway. 

Anticonvulsant drugs can help prevent future seizures but are not absorbed rapidly enough from the stomach to have any effect on an ongoing seizure. Giving additional oral doses of medications while your pet is seizing is not helpful. If your pet is experiencing a seizure lasting longer than 5 minutes, we may administer anticonvulsants intravenously.  

We can tell how well an anticonvulsant is working by comparing the records you’ve made of seizure frequency and severity before starting the drug with the frequency and severity of seizures you’ve recorded after drug has been maintained for a time at a steady state level in your pet’s brain. 

It can take several months to get the best possible results. Sometimes we need to add a second medication to achieve this.

Here’s our recommended protocol for all patients on anticonvulsant drugs: 

  • Physical exam every 6 to 12 months.
  • CBC/Chemistry profile and bile acids blood tests every 6 to 12 months to detect any drug-related or metabolic issues before they adversely affect your pet. 
  • Blood tests to make sure the dose and frequency of the drug we’ve prescribed is enough to achieve the desired drug level in the brain and to make sure drug toxicity is not occurring. 

As a general rule, once your pet begins taking an anticonvulsant, he or she will need to continue taking it for life.

Living with Your Pet’s Seizures

Pets prone to seizures are usually normal between seizures and if they’re in good health otherwise, can enjoy a good quality of life and a full lifespan. 

For their owners, managing pets’ seizures over a lifetime can be challenging. 

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in London recently interviewed 21 owners of dogs with epilepsy. Among their findings:

  • Witnessing a pet’s seizure is distressing. 
  • Not knowing when and how often the next seizures will be adds to owners’ stress.
  • Following the first seizure, owners of seizing pets reported feeling distraught, fearful and uncertain about their pet’s future.
  • Owners may fear leaving a pet prone to seizures unsupervised.
  • Some owners reported having difficulty getting help caring for their seizure-prone dogs.
  • Owners said the people in their lives did not always understand the magnitude of commitment required to care for an epileptic dog.

The researchers concluded, “the commitment required to care for a dog with idiopathic epilepsy, and the lifestyle changes made by their owners, may be far greater than previously estimated. Further consideration of these factors by veterinary professionals and the friends and families of owners of dogs with idiopathic epilepsy could improve owner quality of life and facilitate the provision of additional support.”

At Brownsburg Animal Clinic, in addition to offering the best possible medical care for our patients experiencing seizures, we do our best to offer understanding and support to our clients who love and care for them. We appreciate your commitment.