Seizures, the most common neurologic disorder diagnosed in dogs,1 are characteristic of epilepsy, which is defined as recurrent seizures over a period of time.2 Seizures are clinical manifestations of excess and hypersynchronous electrical activity in the cerebral cortex. The multiple causes of epilepsy include brain tumors, degenerative brain disease, and other brain disorders. Epilepsy affects up to 0.75% of the canine population.3
The most common type of epilepsy is idiopathic, or primary, epilepsy. In idiopathic epilepsy (IE), the underlying cause of recurrent seizures is unknown or no identifiable brain disease can be found.2
Certain breeds are predisposed to IE, which, based on epidemiologic studies, is thought to have a genetic basis.4 (See Breeds Predisposed to Epilepsy.)
Breeds Predisposed to Epilepsy1
Belgian shepherd dog
Bernese mountain dog
English springer spaniel
German shepherd dog
Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever
Most IE patients have their first seizure between 1 and 5 years of age, but patients can be older or younger at onset. In one study, 75% of dogs with recurrent seizures at less than 1 year of age (ie, juvenile epilepsy) had no identifiable brain disease.1 Another study found no apparent cause for seizures in 35% of dogs with seizure onset at more than 5 years of age (ie, late-onset epilepsy).1
Seizures are described as generalized or focal. Generalized seizures reflect involvement of both hemispheres of the cerebral cortex, whereas focal seizures indicate abnormal activity in one part of a cerebral hemisphere.4 Most IE patients display generalized tonic-clonic seizures. During the tonic phase, the patient loses consciousness and falls to one side in opisthotonus with every limb rigid and extended. The clonic phase that follows consists of limb paddling/jerking and chewing movements.1 Seizures typically have 4 stages: prodrome, preictal, ictus, and postictal.5 (See Table 1.)
Table 1: Stages of a Seizure
Anxiety, irritability, clinginess, somnolence
Hours before the seizure
Frequently not apparent to the patient's owner
Beginning of the seizure
Vacant stare, slow arching of the head and neck
Seconds to minutes
The visible seizure, often characterized by tonic and clonic phases
Tonic: Loss of consciousness, opisthotonus, rigid and extended limbs, erratic breathing, loss of bowel and bladder control
Clonic: Paddling of limbs, chewing movements
Variable (ie, seconds to several minutes or even nonstop)
Period following the seizure
Abnormal mentation, pacing, temporary blindness, hunger, ataxia, aggression
Minutes to hours
IE is diagnosed by ruling out all other possible causes of seizures by having a normal neurologic examination, normal lab tests (eg, CBC, serum chemistry, bile acids, thyroid function), a normal brain MRI, and normal spinal fluid analysis.
Treatment is specific to the patient and based on the veterinarian’s familiarity with and access to antiepileptic drugs (AEDs). A recent consensus statement recommends beginning AED therapy6:
When the patient has more than 2 seizures every 6 months
When cluster seizures are present
After any episode of status epilepticus
When the postictal period is prolonged or unusual
The goal of AED therapy is to significantly decrease seizure frequency and severity while minimizing medication side effects. A drug that decreases seizure frequency by at least 50% is considered efficacious. Treatment may include first-line AEDs only or first-line AEDs in conjunction with other anticonvulsant drugs. (See Table 2.)
Table 2: Common Medications for Treatment of Epilepsy
Loading dose: 125 mg/kg/day PO for 5 days
Maintenance dose: 35 mg/kg/day PO
Polyuria, polydipsia, polyphagia, sedation, ataxia, pancreatitis, gastritis (vomiting)
Initial: CBC, serum chemistry, serum drug concentrations 2 weeks after loading
Maintenance: Every 6-12 months
10 mg/kg PO q8h1
20-30 mg/kg PO q8h (regular release)
20-30 mg/kg PO q12h (extended release)
Sedation, ataxia (typically none to mild)
2-3 mg/kg PO q12h
Polyuria, polydipsia, polyphagia, sedation, ataxia, hepatopathy, p450 enzyme induction, bone marrow hypoplasia (rare)
Initial: CBC, serum chemistry, serum drug concentrations in 2-3 weeks
Maintenance: Every 6-12 months
10-40 µg/mL This is lab dependent (ie, Antech). Dewey quotes a range of 20-35 µg/mL.1
2-4 mg/kg PO q8-12h
10-20 mg/kg PO q12h (per the author’s experience)
Decreased appetite, sedation, idiosyncratic hepatic necrosis (rare)
Initial: CBC, serum chemistry in 2-3 weeks
Maintenance: Every 6-12 months
If seizure frequency is unacceptable (ie, >1 per month), additional treatment options are limited to increasing current medication dosages or adding a different AED. Nonmedical therapies (eg, diet changes, acupuncture, vagal nerve stimulators) have also been investigated.1 While the author does not discourage any strategy to help improve seizure control, these ancillary measures have not been studied extensively, making it difficult to advise a patient’s owner on their efficacy. Clients can be instructed to provide supportive care by remaining calm when seizures are occurring to limit injury to the patient and by creating a quiet, dimly lit environment for the recovery.
IE is not curable, and management requires a long-term commitment from the patient’s owner. Approximately 25% of patients with IE will be refractory to one or more anticonvulsant medications.5 Comorbidities (eg, anxiety, hyperactivity, behavior changes, medication side effects) contribute to a patient’s decreased quality of life. Dogs with epilepsy have been reported to have shorter lifespans because, as a result of emotional stress to pet owners, treatment cost, and/or patient quality-of-life concerns, many clients choose euthanasia over long-term treatment.7
View the PDF at the top of the article for a client handout on what to do in the event of a pet's seizure.
A Personal Perspective on Epilepsy
Cyndie Courtney, DVM, VetChangesWorld.com
What does a seizure feel like? Grand mal seizures don’t feel like anything. How do I know? Because I’ve had 2. The first led to my original diagnosis, and the second occurred when I switched medications to have children, so I speak from personal experience when I discuss a pet’s seizure disorder with a client.
Each time I had a seizure, I only realized something was wrong as I came to, surrounded by EMTs. I felt really groggy, but I didn’t hurt, and I wasn’t scared. The seizures are simply blank spots in my mind, as if I were asleep and woke up from a too-short nap.
Experiencing the seizure is the easy part. What comes afterward is hard.
It’s hard seeing the impact of my seizure on the people who watched it. It’s hard having to adjust my medication and suffer with grogginess, proprioceptive deficits, or allergic reactions. It’s hard knowing my condition could randomly kill me. Fortunately, my epilepsy is well controlled.
I don’t speak for every epileptic, and other seizure disorders are different—partial seizures in particular. However, my personal perspective helps when I talk to clients. Here is what I tell them.
As scary as a grand mal seizure looks, your pet is not in pain.
It is normal to worry about your pet. This will help you watch closely for seizures and medication side effects. However, you shouldn’t let your worry stop your pet from enjoying his or her life.
While we aim to minimize and decrease seizure severity and frequency, our other goal is to give your pet a good quality of life between seizures.
At the end of the day, veterinary epileptic patients need the same things I cherish most—friends, family, and a great team to help keep them safe, healthy, and loved.