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Idiopathic Epilepsy in Dogs

By: Dr. John McDonnell

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Epilepsy is a condition characterized by recurrent seizures. Approximately 2 to 3 percent of dogs are epileptic and the age at which dogs with idiopathic epilepsy have their first seizure is usually between 1 and 5 years of age. Many pets can have one seizure without ever having a second. The seizures can be generalized or partial.

Partial or focal seizures indicate activation of a limited number or group of neurons. Generalized seizures indicate a synchronous discharge of a large number of neurons in both sides of the brain. The majority of dogs (50 to 60 percent) with idiopathic epilepsy have generalized seizures.

Seizures usually appear suddenly and end spontaneously. Seizures can last from seconds to minutes. Generalized seizures that last more than 30 minutes or multiple seizures that occur so rapidly as to prevent complete recovery are considered emergency situations that require immediate intervention as permanent brain damage may occur after this 30 minutes.

Some dogs exhibit the following three stages of seizures. However, not all dogs have the exact type of seizure stages.

  • The aura or prodromal stage is the time immediately before the actual seizure, which may last minutes or hours. During this time, your dog may show a slight change in behavior or attitude. In many dogs, the seizures begin suddenly without any warning signs.

  • The ictus is the actual seizure episode in which your dog may become stiff, lose consciousness, fall over and begin paddling, vocalize, gnash the teeth, urinate, defecate, and salivate. This stage can last seconds to minutes and is generally the part of the seizure your veterinarian wants you to time. During this time, your dog is unconscious and is not suffering.

  • The post-ictal phase immediately follows the ictus and begins as your dog regains consciousness, as evidenced by looking around or focusing on something or someone. Some dogs remain lying down in exhaustion or fall into a deep sleep. Some stand up after a few seconds or minutes. They may be disoriented, weak, poorly responsive, blind, deaf and/or anxious. Most dogs return to normal within a few minutes although some dogs may require days to recover completely.

    Several different diseases may cause seizures (convulsions). The term idiopathic epilepsy refers to a seizure disorder the cause of which remains unknown despite a thorough diagnostic evaluation. Treatment and prognosis (outcome) of seizures depend on their underlying causes. The following are the most significant causes of seizures in dogs and cats:

  • Structural disorders
  • Viral or inflammatory disorders
  • Distemper
  • Fungal disease (e.g. cryptococcosis)
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Encephalitis
  • Rabies
  • Brain abscess
  • Head trauma
  • Brain tumor
  • Cerebral infarct (uncommon in dogs and cats)
  • Vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessel)
  • Developmental disorders (e.g. hydrocephalus)
  • Metabolic Disorders
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Hepatoencephalopathy (liver disease)
  • Advanced uremia (kidney failure)
  • Pocalcemia (low blood calcium concentration)
  • Hypernatremia (high blood sodium concentration)
  • Hypoxia (low blood oxygen)
  • Thiamine deficiency (B-complex vitamin deficiency)
  • Poisoning
  • Antifreeze
  • Lead
  • Organophosphates
  • Carbamates

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