Perhaps nothing is more scary or distressing for an owner than seeing your pet have a seizure. Knowing what to do if it happens can make it not only safer for everyone involved, but also enables you to help your veterinarian do her job by providing accurate information. If your pet starts having a seizure, what do you do?
1- Clear the space around the pet so they do not hit their head, fall down stairs, roll off the couch, etc. Avoid moving the animal, if possible, but adjust the surroundings. If they are by the coffee table leg, move the furniture, or put a pillow between them and whatever they might hurt themselves on. If they are on a piece of furniture, holding pillows or a thick blanket at the edge can prevent them from falling off.
2 – Look at a clock and start to time the seizure. Length of time matters!
3 – Monitor, but do not restrain. Pets undergoing a seizure do not know what they are doing, and you don’t want to get bit, scratched, or head-butted. If you’ve done step 1 properly, they are not in danger of hurting themselves. There’s an old wive’s tale about “swallowing their tongues” – sheer nonsense!
Can’t hurt to start getting your shoes on. If the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, I’d head to your veterinarian or the local emergency clinic. Besides, whenever I get my shoes on, the seizure stops.
When the seizure stops, note the time. Write down how long it took, because your vet will ask (and be very impressed you had the presence of mind to time it!). Seizures can feel like 20 minutes when in fact they are only two!
When the pet has finished with the “active” seizure, he or she will enter a “post-ictal” phase. How long this lasts is important as well (still got your eye on the clock?).
Realize that a seizure is like a fireworks show in the brain instead of the normal, small and controlled impulses. After the fireworks, it takes time for everything to settle down. Dogs and cats will normally act drunk or dazed during this post-ictal phase. Don’t encourage them to get up until they are ready. Don’t offer treats or food. Just let them recalibrate.
Most dogs will have only a brief post-ictal phase, ranging from 5 to 45 minutes. Neurology specialists say the post-ictal phase can last up to FIVE DAYS!
So, when to worry!?!
If the seizure was brief (minute or three) and the post-ictal phase also brief (less than 20 minutes or so) and now your dog is bouncing around like nothing happened, rushing to the vet may not be needed. When I worked in the ER, I would see these appointments, and everything was normal. Some people would be mad that they paid for an emergency visit and were told we could find nothing deathly wrong with their pet. *sigh*
I often tell these clients every pets gets “one free seizure.”What I mean by this is some pets have a single seizure, and never have one again in their lives. You certainly don’t want to start a lifetime of medication that is not needed. After the first seizure, we often will draw blood to rule out liver disease that can cause seizures (in puppies or young dogs, in particular). 99% of the time, the bloodwork is normal (never a bad thing!!), so we watch and wait.
If the seizure comes in pairs, or a cluster of back-to back seizures, that warrants a trip to the emergency clinic. Also, if the seizure lasted longer than 5 minutes or so, or the post-ictal phase goes on for a couple hours, never hurts to have them checked. These dogs may be more prone to additional seizures and need monitoring at a vet hospital. Or they might be fine. Can’t hurt to have them checked.
A variety of things can cause seizures in dogs, ranging from liver disease or toxins (young dogs) to epilepsy (most common cause, middle aged) and even cancer (typically older dogs and cats). Many of these are difficult or impossible to diagnose in a general practice setting. Even if the seizure was brief and your dog is fine now, still mention it to your veterinarian. Depending on breed and age, we may be more concerned about specific disease for some breeds than others.
Even better, seizures come in a lot of varieties. Not every seizure is the “grand mal”, tonic-clonic seizure with paddling and foaming, peeing and pooping. Some seizures present as staring into space and being unresponsive. Others can present as “fly-biting.” The common denominator? The dog or cat doesn’t respond when called or distracted. At all. These are called focal seizures, and have similar brain pathology as the dramatic ones, but are less obvious.
The most common cause of seizures is idiopathic epilepsy. “Idiopathic” means no one knows what causes it. Reassuring, I know, but doesn’t it sound official? And no, there is no test for epilepsy. You rule out everything else and say “well, we’ll call it epilepsy.” Frustrating, but true. There is very effective treatment though! Some dogs are easily maintained on medication, and have few to no seizures ever again. Others are on multiple medications, and still have occasional seizures. We can at least make it better though!
Web-DVM guest blogger Dr. Karen Louis is a practicing small animal veterinarian. See more of her articles at her blog at VetChick.com