Understanding Canine Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a common neurological disease of dogs. Often referred to as “the great masquerader” because so many of the symptoms are vague, epilepsy can be difficult to diagnose. When seizures do occur, they are often dramatic and frightening, which is why it’s so important to see your veterinarian if you think your dog might be having a seizure.

What can cause Seizures in Puppies?

Epilepsy isn’t the only neurological disease that can cause seizures in dogs, but most often dogs with epilepsy have recurring seizures (epilepsy is present) and not transient episodes (it’s another problem).

There are several different forms of epilepsy: “idiopathic” means we don’t know why it’s happening, while “symptomatic” means there is some underlying brain disease that causes the seizures.

Idiopathic epilepsy occurs in both dogs and people can be either genetic or occurring for no known reason (such as head trauma). Often, epilepsy occurs secondary to other problems in the brain.

Symptoms of Seizures in Puppies

Epilepsy is very common, but it’s also a diagnosis of exclusion. When diagnosing epilepsy, we must be able to find out why the seizures are occurring and rule out all other possible causes for them so that we can give you both accurate information as well as appropriate treatment options.

To diagnose epilepsy, your veterinarian will need to capture a seizure on video. Several drugs will induce seizures in dogs with epilepsy, but not in normal dogs.  Your veterinarian may need to sedate or anesthetize your dog to do this. If they can see a characteristic seizure pattern on the tape, your dog will be diagnosed with epilepsy and treatment can be discussed. But sometimes even sedation or anesthesia won’t induce a seizure, and other tests must be done.

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Genetic testing or an MRI can be helpful but they are not necessary to make a diagnosis of epilepsy. We may need to perform other tests such as a special EEG (electroencephalogram – brain wave test) which can show electrical activity in the brain.

What should you do if your dog has a seizure?

If you see your dog having a seizure, do not panic. Call your veterinarian and describe the seizure activity. Try to remember how long it lasted and any unusual behavior that occurred before or after the seizure happened. You may not witness all types of seizures, so when in doubt, call us! If we can’t find anything else wrong and your dog’s history and physical exam indicate a diagnosis of epilepsy, we will probably prescribe anticonvulsant medication.

How is Epilepsy treated?

Many dogs with epilepsy can be very successfully managed with a medication called anticonvulsants. Most anticonvulsant medications are completely safe, but some can cause mild side effects such as loss of appetite or sedation, and some may be too strong for certain dogs with epilepsy. It is not uncommon for these drugs to need to be changed (either up or down) in dosage or even occasionally discontinued if they are causing too much sedation.

Your Veterinarian can help you pick the medication that will work best for your dog and give you the best quality of life.

What other types of Seizures in Puppies are there?

Other types of seizures that might be confused with epilepsy include narcolepsy, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), inner ear infections, poisoning, or head trauma.

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Narcolepsy is a neurologic disease that usually affects dogs between 4-8 years of age. Dogs with narcolepsy have recurring episodes of “sleep attacks” where they will just collapse into sleep for several seconds to sometimes minutes at a time without warning. They may also have episodes of “sleep paralysis” where they cannot move or make noise when in a state of sleep.

Hypoglycemia would involve a blood test at the time of seizure activity to document that there is a low level of glucose (sugar) in the blood, but dogs with epilepsy may also have low levels from time to time so this wouldn’t be diagnostic by itself. Glucose can be given orally during a seizure to help prevent further injury.

Inner ear infections can cause seizures, but typically will start with head tilting and/or circling which are not seen in most dogs with epilepsy. It’s possible for dogs with chronic inner ear disease to have seizure episodes but again, these dogs usually present differently than those with epilepsy.

Trauma to the head can cause seizures but is unlikely in young puppies. If they are having recurring seizures it’s important to rule out trauma as a possible cause since prompt treatment could prevent future injury.

Any dog who has suffered trauma or poisoning should be seen by a veterinarian even if not currently seizuring or showing any specific symptoms because some types of injuries or toxicities can damage the brain without causing obvious symptoms initially.