Can pets die from a seizure?
Pets do not commonly pass away during a seizure if proactive medical therapy is provided. However, pets that have long, untreated seizures are at risk of death.
What is a Seizure?
A seizure is an uncontrollable electrical disturbance in the brain. Seizures in dogs and cats can manifest as multiple different presentations. The most common type of seizure activity is a grand mal seizure, where the animal lies unconscious, typically on their side with rapid thrashing/paddling of the legs, which may include urination or defecation. A focal facial seizure occurs when the electrical activity is exclusively located on one area of the brain. This type of seizure results in abnormal facial movements. Most seizures in dogs and cats last less than 60 seconds.
There are other diseases that present with symptoms that resemble those of a seizure, and your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet had a seizure or another type of episode. Causes of seizures are usually broken down based on the age of the pet when the seizures are initially noted. Pets that are less than 1 year of age when they start seizing tend to have congenital or metabolic abnormalities that cause these episodes. Idiopathic epilepsy is the most common reason for pets to have seizures between 1-4 years of age. Idiopathic epilepsy means that there is no structural or metabolic cause for the seizures, which is typically the common reason for seizures in humans as well. In pets under 4 years of age, concern for metabolic disease (liver, kidney, blood sugar abnormalities) or cancer is high on the list of possibilities. Diagnostics like blood work, radiographs, neurology consultation, and/or MRI may be recommended to help determine the cause of your pet’s seizures.
A long, uninterrupted seizure is called status epilepticus, which is usually defined as a seizure that lasts longer than 30 minutes, or two or more seizures without a full recovery between them. During a seizure, a pet can get hyperthermic (elevated body temperature), which can be damaging to the brain and other internal organs and can lead to death. Some pets will seizure secondary to an underlying dysfunction in one of their internal organs, which may make it hard for them to stop seizing and can increase the risk of them passing away.
Duration of a Seizure
Any pet who has had a seizure should be evaluated by a veterinarian. In most cases, a seizure lasts less than 60 seconds. Once your pet has stopped seizing, they should be safely transported to a veterinarian to be evaluated. If your pet does not stop seizing after 5 minutes, they need to be brought to a veterinary hospital even if they are still actively seizing.
Treatment of a Seizure
Extreme care needs to be taken to prevent injury to humans and your pet. Wrap them in a thick blanket to carry them and prevent bite injuries. Once they are settled, the blanket should not be wrapped around them, as this could further increase their body temperature. At the veterinary hospital, staff will administer medication (usually valium) to stop the seizure and start other treatments to help with the elevated temperature or metabolic derangements (such as low blood sugar).
Your veterinarian will discuss treatment options for seizures. Long-term daily medication is usually recommended to help minimize the frequency and severity of the seizures. Some common anti-convulsant medications used in dogs and cats are: phenobarbital, levetiracetam (keppra), potassium bromide, and zonisamide.
If your pet is epileptic and has seizures, you should speak to your veterinarian about having rescue medications that can be given at home to stop a seizure. These medications can be rectally or nasally administered and are typically valium. Medication can be given prior to taking your pet to a veterinary hospital to continue with treatment.
If you are unable to safely transport your pet, reach out to your veterinarian or a local emergency hospital to ask about ambulance options that are available in your area.
Recovery from a Seizure
The immediate phase after a seizure is called the post-ictal phase. This is usually the 5-30 minutes immediately after a seizure occurs. During this period of time, animals are commonly disoriented, wobbly, sedated, and may be blind. The body is recovering from the seizure during this period of time. Your pets should be kept away from objects that could harm them, stairs, and open water during recovery. They should be watched during this time period to prevent self-inflicted injury. They may also not recognize their family and be scared. Do not force interaction or corner them as they may react out of fear.
After the post-ictal phase, they should return to their normal behavior. If they are persistently abnormal after the expected recovery phase, they should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Please keep a log of seizures, the recovery period, and pertinent details, since all of these details can help your veterinarian manage their disease.