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Idiopathic Epilepsy in Dogs

By: Dr. John McDonnell

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Idiopathic epilepsy is a specific term referring to a seizure disorder that has no identifiable cause. It is also referred to as genetic or congenital epilepsy. The terms epilepsy, seizure, fit or convulsion all mean the same thing, the physical manifestation of a sudden, excessive electrical discharge of neurons in the brain that results in a series of involuntary contractions of the voluntary muscles, abnormal sensations, abnormal behaviors, or some combination of these events.

In your pet, the physical manifestation can vary between a far-away look or twitching in one part of the face to your pet falling on his side, barking, gnashing his teeth, urinating, defecating and paddling his limbs.

Seizures usually appear suddenly and end spontaneously, and can last from seconds to minutes. Idiopathic epilepsy can occur in all pedigree breeds as well as mixed-breed dogs. In some breeds, idiopathic epilepsy has been proven to be genetic. These breeds include German shepherd dogs, keeshonds, Belgian tervurens, beagles, Irish setters, Saint Bernards, poodles, wirehaired fox terriers, cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers.

Because idiopathic epilepsy or a predisposition to epilepsy might be inherited, neither epileptic animals nor their first-degree relative should be used for breeding.

Components of a Seizure

There are three components of a seizure:

  • Aura. Certain signs of an impending seizure may be evident, such as restlessness, whining, shaking, salivation, affection, wandering or hiding. These signs may persist from seconds to days in duration and may or may not be apparent to you.

  • Ictus. During ictus, the seizure occurs. The attack may last seconds or minutes. Your dog may fall on his side and may look like he is kicking or paddling. He will salivate, lose control of his bladder, and be unaware of his surroundings.

  • Postictial stage. This stage occurs immediately after the seizure. Your dog will appear confused and disoriented and may wander or pace. He may still exhibit salivation and may be unresponsive to you. Or he may come to you for comfort. The period may be short or it may last for days.

    What to Do If Your Pet Has a Seizure:

  • Do not panic. If your pet is having a seizure, he is unconscious and he is not suffering. Your pet may seem like he is not breathing, but he is.

  • Time the seizure. Actually look at a clock or watch and note the time; although it may seem like forever, it may only be 30 seconds.

  • Keep your pet from hurting himself by moving furniture away from the immediate area. Also protect him from water, stairs, and other sharp objects. If possible, place a pillow under his head to prevent head trauma.

  • Note what type of muscular activity or abnormal behavior does your pet exhibits during the seizures? Your veterinarian may want you to keep a record of the date and length of time of each seizure.

  • If the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, call your veterinarian or veterinary emergency clinic immediately.

  • Pets do not swallow their tongues. Do not put your hand in your dog's mouth – you may get bit. Do not put spoons or any other object into your pet's mouth.

  • Keep children and other pets away from your seizing animal.

  • Remain by your pet's side; stroke and comfort your animal so when he comes out of the seizure you are there to calm him.

    After the Seizure

  • Observe your pet's post-seizure behavior. Do not allow your pet access to the stairs until he is fully recovered. Offer water if he wishes to drink.

  • Be prepared for vocalization and stumbling after the seizure ends. You need to be strong and offer support and comfort to your pet. He will be confused and may feel as though he did something wrong. Speak softly and with a soothing voice.

  • If your pet has not fully recovered within 30 minutes, contact your veterinarian or local emergency facility.

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