Seizures in Dogs: Symptoms, Risks, and How to Help
Clients are typically concerned about whether or not their dog can die from a seizure. The answer is yes, and risk factors largely depend on the underlying cause for the seizure, as well as the type and duration of the seizure. Some causes can be fatal, and seizures that involve more parts of the body or are longer in duration are the most dangerous.
What Is a Seizure?
A seizure, also known as a confusion or fit, is a sudden and excessive firing of neurons in the brain that results in abnormal movements, behaviors, or sensations.
A seizure is considered a symptom, which means it can be caused by many different diseases and problems. Some causes can be easily treated (such as a low blood sugar) and other causes can be fatal (such as from a toxin, head trauma, or a brain tumor.) A seizure can last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes or even hours.
Situations that Increase the Risk of Death from a Seizure in Dogs
The risk of death from a seizure is related to the cause of the seizure, type, and duration of the seizure. Seizures that result from head trauma, brain tumors, organ malfunction, toxins, and other serious medical problems can potentially lead to death.
A dog suffering from a seizure caused by idiopathic epilepsy, which means there is no known underlying cause for the seizure, is at a much lower risk of dying. Idiopathic epilepsy most often occurs in young, healthy dogs. Dog breeds with the highest risk of epilepsy include Beagles, Belgian Tervurens, Border Collies, Dachshunds, Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, Labrador Retrievers, Keeshonds, Poodles, St. Bernards, Shetland Sheepdogs, Springer Spaniels, and Vizslas. Learn more about the possible Causes of Seizures in Dogs.
Other types of seizure that have a lower risk of death are those caused by low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This lower risk assumes that the blood sugar level and underlying cause is readily treated by a veterinarian.
Another factor that can increase the risk of death is the type of seizure. Seizures can be generalized or partial (also known as focal seizures). Over half of dogs with epilepsy have generalized seizures.
- Focal seizures are caused by the stimulation of a select cluster of neurons on one side of the brain. Signs of focal seizures include facial twitches, head shaking, stargazing, “fly biting” type behavior, or unusual attention-seeking or fear behaviors.
- Generalized seizures are caused by a larger number of neurons that are present on both sides of the canine brain. They generally affect the entire body and can cause a dog to lose consciousness, fall over onto their side, drool, urinate, defecate, and have motor movements, such as paddling their limbs. These motor movements are sometimes described as tonic, clonic, or tonic/clonic.
Prolonged or repeated seizures, even if caused by idiopathic epilepsy, can increase the risk of death. Prolonged or recurrent generalized seizures can be life-threatening and increase the risk of your dog dying during or from secondary complications from the seizure.
Here are the two types of multiple seizure events:
- Cluster seizures occur when multiple seizures occur in one day. Some dogs will have 2, 3, or even numerous seizures within a 24-hour period.
- Status epilepticus occurs when there is continuous seizure activity or reoccurence without a recovery period. The term status epilepticus refers to prolonged seizures or repeated seizures.
Even though a seizure is scary and it seems like your dog is in pain or may die, this is unlikely when there is a single seizure event in a healthy, young dog. If a seizure occurs a single time for a healthy pet with no trauma or toxin exposure, the risk of death is lower.
The Risk Associated with Multiple or Prolonged Seizures in Dogs
Dogs with multiple seizures in a day, a seizure lasting longer than 5 minutes, or multiple seizures without prolonged periods of recovery are suffering from extremely dangerous conditions.
When multiple seizure or prolonged seizures occur, there is potential for the body temperature to rise due to the increased muscle activity associated with paddling and muscle movements. Some dogs can quickly increase their body temperatures from normal (which is 100 to 102.5°F) to over 108°F. This can lead to hyperthermia (high body temperature), which is a form of heat stroke. At temperatures above 109° F, your dog is at risk of critical organ failure.
Elevated body temperature can also lead to additional abnormal neurological symptoms, such as lethargy, weakness, or coma. Life-threatening secondary complications may include disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), gastrointestinal ulceration, low blood pressure (hypotension), low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), infections, and/or renal failure.
The treatment for hyperthermia from seizure activity focuses on immediately stopping the seizures and decreasing the body temperature. Intravenous (IV) diazepam (valium) is commonly used to stop seizure activity. If that doesn’t work, other injectable drugs such as propofol may be used. Cooling methods may include a cool water bath, fanning, and IV fluid therapy.
Long-term treatment of dog seizures include medications such as phenobarbital, potassium bromide, levetiracetam (keppra), zonisamide, gabapentin, and felbamate.
When To See Your Vet For Seizures in Dogs
Hyperthermia is an emergency and, if a seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes or there are multiple seizures, you should head to your veterinarian or your closest veterinary emergency clinic immediately. It is best to see your veterinarian for the following:
- Any seizure that lasts longer than 5 minutes
- When there are more than three seizures in a 24-hour time period
- Seizures that begin before your pet has completely recovered from the previous seizure
- Abnormal signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, or bleeding
How to Help Your Dog if They Are Having a Seizure
During a seizure event, the best thing you can do is to ensure your safety and the safety of your pet. The general rules of how to help your dog if they are having a seizure include:
- Be safe and protect your dog. Don’t move your dog unless they are in a location where they can be injured during a seizure. If your dog is near stairs, gently move them out of harm’s way. The safest way to move a seizing dog is to gently drag them by their back legs. If your dog is outside, make sure they are not near the road, sharp objects, or bodies of water, such as a pond, lake, or swimming pool. If you need to transport your dog, carefully wrap them in a thick blanket to protect yourself from bites and scratches. Only keep your dog wrapped to prevent injury and unwrap as soon as possible to avoid heat retention.
- Don’t touch your dog’s mouth. There is an old wives’ tale that a dog will swallow their tongue during a seizure. This is NOT true. Do not get near your dog’s mouth and don’t put anything in your dog’s mouth during a seizure. Many pet owners get bit from being too close to their dog’s mouth or worrying about them swallowing their tongue during a seizure.
- Time the seizure. Check your watch and note how long each seizure lasts. Many pet owners believe a seizure lasts several minutes when it is typically only seconds. A seizure event is a stressful time and the actual seizure can seem to last longer than its actual duration.
- Start a seizure log. Develop a system or calendar to document this seizure, time of day, length of seizure, and anything your dog was doing immediately before the seizure.
- Prepare for post-seizure behavior. The time immediately following a seizure is called the “postictal period” and can last from minutes to hours. During this time, dogs can have a variety of physical and behavioral abnormalities, including disorientation, weakness, temporary blindness, and difficulty walking. Some dogs will appear “drunk” as they stagger, try to walk but fall over, or run into furniture or walls. During this period, your dog is vulnerable to injuries like falling down stairs or into bodies of water. One way to protect your dog is by confining them to a contained area. Take special care not to get bitten or injured. Your dog doesn’t know what they are doing during a seizure and may not recognize you.
- Call your vet. If you have any questions or concerns, please call your veterinarian. They can provide direction concerning when to have your dog evaluated and if treatment or testing is necessary.
Veterinary Treatment of Seizures in Dogs
If you call your vet and they recommend that you take your dog in for care, you can expect them to take your dog to their treatment area and administer drugs to stop the seizures. The most common drug used is valium (diazepam), which is given intravenously (IV). It can also be administered in the nose or rectum in an emergent situation when it is impossible to gain immediate IV access.
Your dog will be examined and your vet may suggest diagnostic testing, such as blood tests and a urinalysis. They may also refer you to a veterinary specialist, like a veterinary neurologist, or an emergency clinic where they offer 24-hour care. Additional care recommendations will depend on high body temperature, deviant blood values, or other abnormalities.
Once a diagnosis is made, treatment will depend on the cause of the seizures. Dogs with epilepsy may be prescribed anti-seizure medications. Dogs that have a history of repeated or prolonged seizures may be prescribed rescue medications to stop seizures at home. Drugs such as valium or midazolam can be given in the nose or rectally to help control the seizure activity in an emergency situation.