Seizures in Cats and Dogs - What You Need To Know
Helpful information to help you give your pet the proper care.
Dogs and cats can have seizures or convulsions, just like people. Witnessing your pet having a seizure can be a frightening experience. This article discusses some of the possible causes of seizures and what you can do to provide the best care for your pet during these episodes.
What causes seizures?
Seizures in pets can be caused by a number of different conditions. Brain tumors are a common cause in older pets, who often have other signs such as walking in circles or stumbling. In certain conditions of the liver or kidneys, toxins which build up in the blood, may also cause seizures. Seizures can also be caused by encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain that often results from an untreated infection. In addition, if a blow to the head is severe enough to result in unconsciousness (eg, being hit by a car), it can create a scarred or irritated area of the brain, as a result seizures could develop weeks or months later.
An important thing to remember if your pet has a seizure is not to panic. Your pet is unconscious and not in any pain. (People that have seizures describe feeling dazed, tired, or confused after having a seizure, but that the seizure itself is not painful.) Make sure that your pet is on the floor on a soft surface so that it cannot injure itself by falling off furniture or down a flight of stairs. Do not try to open your pet's mouth or put your fingers in it. It is not possible for your pet to "swallow its tongue." During a seizure, you may see muscle spasms, and your pet may "paddle" their legs or extend them in a rigid fashion. Many pets also lose control of their bladder or bowel.
If you have never seen a seizure before, you may think it is going on and on, but in reality most seizures last for less than a minute. However, if the seizure does stop with a minute or two (check your watch to be sure!), or if several seizures occur within a few minutes of each other, the situation is definitely an emergency and medical help should be sought. In this case, you should get your pet to your veterinarian or a veterinary emergency service immediately.
The cause of a seizure in your pet can be difficult to determine, and many times is never known. When the cause of the seizures cannot be found, the condition is called epilepsy. Providing your vet with a complete history can be very helpful in trying to determine the cause. Be sure to report any other physical problems your pet is currently experiencing. Your vet will do a thorough physical examination, and blood tests will be needed to look for underlying problems. In some cases, more extensive testing such as a spinal tap or a CT scan or MRI may also be recommended. Your vet may refer you to a specialist if they are unable to determine the cause of the seizures.
If an underlying cause for the seizures is found, treatment is directed at correcting the source of the problem in your cat or dog. If no specific cause can be found, but your pet has a short seizure only every few weeks or so, no specific treatment may be needed. If your pet has seizures more frequently, your veterinarian will likely recommend medication to decrease the severity and frequency of the seizures. Sometimes, different drugs need to be tried, as well as different dosages, depending on how your pet responds to the prescribed medication. It is important and very helpful to keep a good record of your pet's seizures, including when (the time of day), the length of the seizure and how often your pet has a seizure, when monitoring treatment.
Some Questions You May Have:
- Are seizures painful for my pet?
Your pet is unconscious during the seizure, and there is no pain.
- How long do seizures last in pets?
The actual seizure usually lasts less than a minute, but it may take many more minutes for your pet to return to normal awareness. If the intense spasms do not stop within a minute or two, or if several seizures occur within a few minutes of each other, the situation is an emergency that should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
- How are seizures treated in pets?
Treatment involves addressing the underlying cause and (if needed) using anticonvulsant drugs to control the seizures.
- My pet just had a seizure, what should I do?
a. Seizures are frightening to witness. Stay calm.
b. Try to time how long the seizure lasts.
c. First thing to do is to stay clear of your pet so he doesn't injure you.
Seizing animals may bite without even realizing it; trying to hold
them down may cause injury to themselves or you.
d. Animals will not 'swallow their tongue' as you may have heard, so
make sure you keep fingers away from your pet's mouth.
e. Quickly and carefully remove any objects in the area that can injure
f. Call your vet. With the first seizure, the patient receives a full
physical exam, blood work, and is monitored ( seizure control
medications usually wait at this point. UNLESS the first seizure is a
severe cluster seizure (several happening at once) or a continual
seizure called Status Epilepticus, this is a medical emergency. If
anything is found on physical or blood work that may cause
seizures, the underlying conditions will be addressed and treated.
- At what age do seizures first occur?
Idiopathic epilepsy (seizures of unknown origin) is most commonly
seen in otherwise healthy animals, between the ages of 1 and 5 years, and may be inherited in certain breeds. Beagles, Keeshonden, Irish Setters, Belgian Tervurens, Siberian Huskies, Springer Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds may be genetically predisposed to idiopathic epilepsy. Idiopathic epilepsy is diagnosed when other causes of seizures have been ruled out by a physical
exam, blood work, and any other necessary procedures.
- What should I do if my pet experiences seizures?
While "observing a seizure", the owner should keep a diary of when/where the seizures occur, how long they last, was the animal acting strangely/doing any activity in particular before the seizure occurred, and how long after the seizure did it take for the animal to return to normal. This information may provide helpful clues to your
vet in diagnosing the cause, if a pattern is observed.
There are definite seizure triggers for some animals, and if they can be identified, the number of seizures can be reduced if the trigger (activity, excitement, etc.) can be avoided.
- When does a pet need medication to control seizures?
The general rule of thumb is more than one seizure every one or two months. The duration and severity of each seizure will also be evaluated.
Seizures have 3 phases:
The 3 phases of seizures are Pre-ictal, ictal, post-ictal. "Ictal" means seizure.
Pre-ictal - the "pre" phase often goes
unnoticed, but you may notice an altered state of consciousness
or restlessness, lasting for a few seconds or
Ictus - the seizure itself, and it may
last a few seconds or minutes. As mentioned above, a continual
seizure, Status Epilepticus, is a medical emergency, and the
pet should be rushed to the vet for medication to break the
seizure and prevent brain and organ damage from hyperthermia
(increased body temperature), acidosis (metabolic imbalance),
hypoperfusion (reduced blood flow), and hypoxia (reduced oxygen
to tissues). All of the above possibilities occur on a much
reduced scale for small seizures, too, so control is
- Post-ictal - this phase is the time after the seizure where the animal appears dazed, confused, depressed. The animal may even appear blind - running into walls, etc. Some animals sleep a lot. This typically lasts several minutes, but can last hours, depending on the seizure duration and frequency.