Epilepsy and Seizures in Dogs & Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Epilepsy and seizures in dogs and cats

It can be more than a little scary, not to mention confusing, to see your pet suddenly spasm uncontrollably. It may be that your fur baby has had an epileptic seizure. Here’s what you need to know about epilepsy in dogs and cats.

First, what's the difference between a seizure and epilepsy?

What is epilepsy? 

Epilepsy is a term used to describe a chronic neurologic (brain) disorder that causes recurrent seizures. While there is no cure for epilepsy in dogs and cats (or humans for that matter), there are medications you can give to manage the condition. We’ll get to that shortly. 

What is a seizure?

A seizure is a sudden burst of uncontrolled electrical activity between brain cells that causes temporary abnormalities in muscle tone (stiffness, limpness) or movement (shaking, twitching), behaviour or states of awareness.

What’s the difference between epilepsy and a seizure?

Seizures aren’t always caused by epilepsy. But epilepsy does always cause seizures. 

If your dog has a seizure, it’s not necessarily epilepsy. It could be caused by:

  • Liver disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Brain tumours
  • Brain trauma (traumatic brain injury, aka TBI)
  • Toxins or poisons
  • Embolism (or vascular disease)
  • Anemia
  • Encephalitis
  • High (or low) blood sugar
  • Electrolyte imbalance

Seizures are more likely to happen during times when the brain is alert and active, like when your pet is excited (suppertime!) or when he's just waking up.

Types of seizures in dogs

There are four common types of seizures that affect dogs:

Grand Mal Seizures: Known as “generalized” seizures, they’re typically caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Episodes can last a few seconds to a few minutes.

When your pet has a grand mal seizure, he loses total muscle control and his limbs convulse uncontrollably. He may also lose control of his bladder and bowel. 

Focal Seizures: Similar to grand mal seizures, focal seizures only affect one side or region of the brain. That means the seizure will only affect one side of your dog’s body. Sometimes, what begins as a focal seizure ultimately becomes a grand mal seizure.

Psychomotor Seizures: This type of seizure may cause your dog to behave oddly. You may find him running in circles or attempting to bite imaginary objects. He might excessively chase his tail (although many dogs do this for plenty of other reasons).

Psychomotor seizures can be difficult to identify since many of the behaviours can be explained away by silly dogs just being silly. If a seizure happens more than once, you may soon recognize that silly behaviour as a telltale sign that an episode is under way. 

Idiopathic Epilepsy Seizures: This is the most common cause of seizures in dogs. It is a hereditary disorder, although doctors do not yet know the exact cause. They do know, however, that these breeds may be genetically predisposed to epilepsy:

  • German shepherd
  • Belgian tervuren
  • Australian shepherd
  • Labrador retriever
  • Staffordshire bull terrier
  • Golden retriever
  • Beagle
  • Collie

Types of seizures in cats

Cats can develop Epilepsy of Unknown Cause (EUC) but, unlike dogs, it’s not rooted in genetics. It is more likely due to microscopic brain damage. 

In addition to grand mal seizures, which are common in both dogs and cats, the following types of seizures are also common in cats:

Status Epilepticus Seizures: These are continuous seizures that last 5-10 minutes or more. Cats in status epilepticus require urgent medical treatment.

Partial Seizures: Although very rare in the feline family, partial seizures are possible. They involve specific muscle groups (not the entire body) and can often be identified by odd behaviour, such as tail chasing, biting imaginary objects or sudden unprovoked aggression. 

Petit Mal Seizures: AKA absence seizures, these episodes tend to be so minor that they often go unnoticed. Some cat parents who know their feline friend has petit mal seizures describe their pets as being dazed or unaware of their surroundings. It can be tricky to tell the difference between a petit mal seizure and typical aloof cat behaviour.

What causes epilepsy in dogs and cats?

Sometimes epilepsy is caused by a problem in the brain:

  • Tumour
  • Infection/inflammation
  • Injury
  • Parasites

Or there may be a problem in the body that’s affecting cell signalling in the brain:

Epilepsy is far less common in cats than in dogs. For cats, seizures are more often a symptom of another disease or brain issue.

What should I do if my pet has a seizure?

Seizure activity can range from mild twitching to uncontrollable shaking. Episodes can last just a few seconds or sometimes several minutes.

If your pet has a seizure ...

  1. Watch the clock. If the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes, or if he has one after the other, he’s at high risk for brain damage. Call your emergency vet clinic immediately.
  2. If possible, carefully move him to an open area where he’s safe from injury (ie: away from furniture and stairs).
  3. Reassure him with gentle touches and a calm voice. 
  4. DO NOT try to hold your pet’s tongue. Unlike humans, pets can’t swallow their tongue during a seizure. Putting your hand near your pet’s mouth while he’s moving uncontrollably can cause him to unintentionally bite you.
  5. When the seizure is over, your pet may experience vision problems or he may seem disoriented. Continue to gently reassure him that he is safe. Your pet may also become quite tired after a seizure. There’s nothing wrong with letting him fall asleep. In fact, it’s encouraged.

How is epilepsy diagnosed? 

Diagnosing epilepsy in pets typically involves ruling out other causes of the seizure. Your vet will ask you a series of questions about your pet’s behaviour. Be specific as possible.

Behaviours to watch for may include:

  • Walking in circles
  • Pawing at the ground
  • Hiding
  • Appearing anxious
  • Whining
  • Seeking attention
  • Appearing confused
  • Staring out into space
  • Restlessness
  • Aggression

Your vet may also take blood and urine samples, paying particular attention to liver and kidney function. Not only can this help your vet determine the cause of your pet’s seizures, but it will also indicate whether or not your pet can take anti-seizure medication.

Vets with access to imaging machines may opt for a CT (computer-assisted tomography) or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to rule out a brain tumour, inflammation or parasites.

When all other causes are ruled out, the remaining diagnosis for dogs is often idiopathic epilepsy. Cats, however, are not diagnosed as quickly, and may require further testing.

Treatments for epilepsy / seizures

Your vet may prescribe any one or more of the following medications to control seizures:

  • Phenobarbital
  • Potassium bromide
  • Zonisamide
  • Levetiracetam

If the medication is effective, it should reduce the frequency of seizures. Some dogs have a gene called the Multidrug Resistance Gene (MDR1) that makes them resistant to anti-seizure medication. The following breeds carry the MDR1 gene:

  • Shetland sheepdogs
  • Australian sheepdogs
  • Old English sheepdogs
  • English Shepherds
  • German shepherds
  • Long-haired whippets
  • Silken windhounds
  • Collies
  • Border collies
  • some mixed breeds

Prevention

Aside from anti-seizure medication, there may not be a whole lot you can do to prevent an episode. 

What you can do, however, is prepare yourself by:

  • Watching for the behavioural signs that lead up to a seizure
  • Clear a safe space for your pet to avoid injury during convulsions
  • Soothe him with gently touch and a reassuring tone

Most importantly, maintain the overall health and wellbeing of your pets. Feed a healthy raw diet (if possible), and make sure they're getting all the essential nutrients they need to live a strong, healthy and happy life.

Here are some supplements to help you do just that: