Mar Vista Animal Medical Center

3850 Grand View Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066

(310)391-6741

marvistavet.com

SEIZURE DISORDER IN DOGS

Watching your dog experience a seizure is both frightening and disturbing, especially if it is unexpected. There is collapse, involuntary movement, and often loss of consciousness followed by a period of daze and disorientation. Prolonged seizure activity constitutes an emergency. You are presumably reading this because your dog has had some kind of involuntary fit and you want to understand what it means and what can be done to prevent future episodes so let's cover some basics.

WHAT IS A SEIZURE AND HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR DOG HAS HAD ONE?

A seizure results from excessive electrical activity in the cerebral cortex of the brain. The electrical activity starts in one area (called the "seizure focus") and spreads outwards through the brain causing involuntary movements and loss of normal consciousness. Classically, the patient loses consciousness, collapses, becomes stiff at first and then begins paddling or struggling but seizures can take many forms. Any involuntary behavior that occurs abnormally may represent a seizure. Seizures are classified into several categories.

GENERALIZED (GRAND MAL) SEIZURES
This is the most common form of seizure in small animals. The entire body is involved in stiffness and possibly stiffness/contraction cycles (tonic/clonic action). The animal loses consciousness and may urinate or defecate.


Video courtesy of: X3ROX45

FOCAL SEIZURES (ALSO CALLED PARTIAL MOTOR SEIZURES)
Focal seizures involve involuntary activity in only one body part. Consciousness may or may not be impaired. A classic example would be the "chewing gum" fit that frequently is seen in canine distemper infections but can be seen in other seizure disorders as well.


Chewing Gum Fit video courtesy of Elizabeth Montgomery

PSYCHOMOTOR SEIZURES (ALSO CALLED COMPLEX PARTIAL SEIZURES) Psychomotor seizures are focal seizures where the seizure is more like an episode of abnormal behavior than an actual convulsion. The pet's consciousness is disturbed by this type of seizure as the pet appears to be hallucinating or in an altered state. The seizure may include episodes of rage or aggression where the pet does not recognize family members or may be as simple as a brief episode of disorientation or "spacing out." Fly-biting is an example of a psychomotor seizure.


Fly-biting video courtesy of beckybrava

Seizures (neurological events) are often difficult to tell from fainting spells (cardiovascular events). Classically, true seizures are preceded by an aura, or special feeling associated with a coming seizure. As animals cannot speak, we usually do not notice any changes associated with the aura. The seizure is also typically followed by a post-ictal period during which the animal appears disoriented, even blind. This period may last only a few minutes or may last several hours. Fainting animals are usually up and normal within seconds of the spell.

*** POST-ICTAL DISORIENTATION IS THE HALLMARK OF THE SEIZURE ***

 

CAUSES OF SEIZURES AND DIAGNOSTICS:

There are many potential causes of seizures: toxins, tumors, genetic disease such as epilepsy, infections, even scarring in the brain from past trauma. Seizures resulting from metabolic problems or toxicity (i.e. when the brain itself is normal) are called Reactive Seizures.  Seizures resulting from identifiable brain abnormalities are called Structural Seizures. Seizures for which no clear cause can be found are called Primary Seizures and the patient is said to have Epilepsy.

It turns out that dogs of certain age groups tend to have common causes for their seizures. This means that certain diagnostic tests are especially important in dogs of one age group while other tests are going to be more important for dogs in another age group. Here are some basic concepts concerning how age is an important consideration:

ANIMALS LESS THAN AGE SIX MONTHS
Seizures are usually caused by infections of the brain. For dogs, the most common infectious diseases would be canine distemper or a parasitic infection such as with Toxoplasma or Neospora. Analysis of cerebrospinal fluid, obtained by a tap under anesthesia, would be important though now that PCR technology is available for detecting DNA of infectious agents, less invasive testing may be recommended depending on the infectious under suspicion.

Particularly important in small dome-headed breeds (Pomeranian, chihuahua etc.) would be congenital disease such as hydrocephalus, where abnormal fluid drainage from the brain creates damage.

ANIMALS BETWEEN AGES 6 MONTHS AND 6 YEARS
The most common reason for a dog, particularly a purebred dog, to begin having seizures in this age range is Genetic Epilepsy (also called Primary Epilepsy.) Epilepsy is diagnosed when no other cause of seizures can be found, there are no neurologic symptoms between seizure events, and the first seizure episodes begin in this age range. Usually basic blood work is done to rule out metabolic causes of seizures but more sophisticated and expensive testing (such as advanced brain imaging) is forgone as the presentation is fairly classic. 

Schnauzers, Basset hounds, Collies, and Cocker spaniels have 2-3 times as much epilepsy as other breeds. Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers are also predisposed to epilepsy but tend to begin their seizures relatively late, closer to age five.

 

Miniature Schnauzer
(Photocredit: Morguefile.com)

Basset Hound
(Photocredit: Morguefile.com)

Collie
(Photocredit: Morguefile.com)

Cocker Spaniel
(Photocredit: Morguefile.com)

ANIMALS MORE THAN AGE FIVE YEARS
In this group, seizures are usually caused by a tumor growing off the skull and pressing on the brain (a “meningioma”). Most such tumors are operable if found early. A CT scan or MRI would be the next step. Special referral is usually necessary for this type of imaging. For patients where surgery is not an option, corticosteroids may be used to reduce swelling in the brain. Treatment to suppress seizures may also be needed using one of the medications discussed below.

 

WHEN TO BEGIN TREATMENT:

In 2016, the American College of Veterinary Internal medicine published a consensus statement on this very subject. If the dog fits into any of these criteria, medication to suppress seizures should be initiated:

  • When seizures occur in "clusters," that is, more than 3 seizures within a 24 hour period.
  • When 2 or more isolated seizures occur within a six month period.
  • If a seizure has lasted 5 minutes or more.
  • If the seizures or their post-ictal disorientation periods are particularly severe.
  • If the dog has a visible structural lesion on a CT, MRI or even a radiograph.
  • If the dog has a history of brain injury or trauma.

It should be noted that the German Shepherd dog, Border collie, Australian shepherd, Golden retriever, Irish setter, and Saint Bernard breeds are notorious for difficulty in seizure control. It is best not to wait for frequent seizures in these cases as each seizure makes the next more difficult to control. Often medication is started in these individuals after the first seizure. The more seizures the patient experiences, the more difficult control becomes in the future.

 

German Shepherd smaller mf

German Shepherd
(photocredit: MorgueFile.com)

Border Collie
(photocredit: MorgueFile.com)

Australian Shepherd
(photocredit: MorgueFile.com)

Golden Retriever
(photocredit: MorgueFile.com)

Irish Setter
(photocredit: MorgueFile.com)

St Bernard mf

St. Bernard
(photocredit: MorgueFile.com)

 

TREATMENT CHOICES: MEDICATION

There are presently four main medications that are used in suppressing seizures in dogs in the United States: phenobarbital, potassium bromide, levetiracetam, and zonisamide. If adequate control cannot be achieved with one medication, often two or even three are combined. The ideal first line anti-convulsant medication is effective, reasonably priced, convenient to administer, and has limited side effects potential. Most dogs are started on either phenobarbital or potassium bromide but we will take a moment to review the pros and cons of all four of these medications.

Phenobarbital

This has been the first line therapy for canine seizure control for decades as it is effective, reasonably priced, and can be given twice daily which is relatively convenient. When dogs with seizures are started on phenobarbital, approximately 31% of them can be expected to be seizure-free. Approximately 80% of dogs on phenobarbital will experience a >50% decrease in seizure frequency. Approximately 20-30% of dogs on phenobarbital will require a second anti seizure medication to achieve acceptable seizure control.
The downsides are phenobarbital use stem from its side effects potential. Phenobarbital blood levels need to be periodically monitored as higher levels are associated with the development of liver failure. The phenobarbital dose must maintain the phenobarbital blood level within a safe therapeutic range and be adjusted accordingly. There is some expense associated with such testing.

Side effects of the drug include sedation, which is usually temporary during the first 1-2 weeks of medication use and wanes as the patient's body adjusts. The patient is likely to be unusually hungry and thirsty on phenobarbital. These side effects can be objectionable. Some lab test changes are associated with phenobarbital usage and need to be recognized as such. Phenobarbital is removed from the body by the liver so good liver function is essential for phenobarbital use and phenobarbital can alter the metabolism of numerous other medications. For more details on phenobarbital, click here.

Potassium Bromide

This medication was used for human seizure control nearly 100 years ago but was eclipsed by the development of phenobarbital. It turns out that while phenobarbital may be a superior seizure drug for people, potassium bromide may be superior for dogs. When dogs with seizures are started on potassium bromide, 52% of them can be expected to become seizure free. Approximately, 70% will have >50% reduction in seizure frequency.

Potassium bromide is associated with pancreatitis and probably should not be used in patients with a history of that disease. Potassium bromide takes many months to reach a stable blood level which could leave the patient vulnerable to seizures during that time. As with phenobarbital, there are monitoring tests associated with potassium bromide use and sedation is a side effect. For more information on potassium bromide, click here.

Levetiracetam (Keppra®)

This drug is popular for refractory epilepsy in dogs because it has been shown to be fairly reliable and has minimal side effects potential. It appears to work best in combination with other seizure medications rather than as a sole therapy but many dogs are able to use it as a single agent. There are no monitoring tests recommended for its use and an extended release formula allows for twice daily use. For more information on levetiracetam, click here.

Zonisamide (Zonegran®)

This drug is a sulfa class anti-seizure medication that is rapidly becoming a first line treatment choice but might also be used to supplement more traditional therapies. Because it is a sulfa, it is vulnerable to the side effects associated with sulfa antibiotics: mostly tear production/dry eye issues but also some immune-mediated reactions. (Sulfa side effects are reviewed more completely in our pharmacy library under the sulfa antibiotics such as trimethoprim sulfa). Zonisamide can be used twice a day in dogs but lasts long enough in the cat to possibly be used once daily.

 
TREATMENT CHOICES: DIET

In 2017, Purina released a veterinary diet designed to supplement anti-seizure medications. The diet employs medium-chain fatty acids as a fat source (fats come in short, medium, and long-chain types which relate to the length of their chain of their carbon chain) and it turns out that MCT's have a direct anti-seizure effect. Dogs that were not able to achieve full seizure control with medication were able to improve control or achieve total control after a 3 month trial on this diet. It is not meant to replace medications by any means, just give them a nutritional boost.


(original graphic by marvistavet.com)

 

SEIZURES AT HOME (WHEN IS IT AN EMERGENCY?)

It is a lucky pet that never has another seizure after beginning medications; but an occasional breakthrough seizure (as disturbing as it may be to watch) is rarely of serious concern. It is important not to put yourself in danger around a seizing pet. Involuntary jaw motion may bite you and in the period of post ictal disorientation the pet may not recognize you and may snap. There are, however, some emergency situations:

  • SEIZURE ACTIVITY NON-STOP FOR FIVE MINUTES OR MORE, OR ONE SEIZURE AFTER ANOTHER REPEATEDLY
    (THIS IS CALLED "STATUS EPILEPTICUS" AND IS A DROP-WHAT-YOU'RE-DOING-AND-RUSH-THE-PET-TO THE-VET EMERGENCY)


  • MORE THAN 3 SEIZURES IN A 24 HOUR PERIOD

An isolated seizure at home probably does not require more than staying out of the way and keeping the pet from hurting himself but if either situation above occurs, then first aid is needed: Rectal administration of diazepam (valium®). In initial studies the injectable product was delivered rectally with a special syringe that could be kept at home. The rectal route avoids any danger of being bitten while trying to administer medication. Recently compounding pharmacies have been able to produce diazepam rectal suppositories which may be easier to use than the syringe method, however, absorption rates are unknown with these products and most neurologists prefer using the injectable product. Rectal diazepam administration has been used successfully for many years in epileptic children; the technique has adapted well to veterinary patients. Diazepam can also be given nasally but there is a greater chance of being bitten.

CAN SEIZURE MEDICATION BE STOPPED?

While there is some risk to discontinuing seizure medications, this may be appropriate for some patients. Dogs should be completely seizure-free for at least a year before contemplating stopping treatment. In breeds for which seizure control is difficult, it is probably best never to stop medication (German Shepherds, Siberian Huskies, Keeshonds, Golden retriever, Irish Setter, St. Bernard). Phenobarbital is a medication that cannot be suddenly discontinued; if you are interested in discontinuing seizure medication, be sure to discuss this thoroughly with your veterinarian.

 

OTHER INFORMATION:

The Epilepsy Genetic Research Project

Veterinary Neurologists at several universities are looking for a genetic answer to epilepsy. They seek DNA samples from epileptic dogs and their close relatives if possible. For more information, visit

www.canine-epilepsy.net/cerc.html

Canine Epilepsy Network

Affiliated with the Veterinary School at the University of Missouri at Columbia, this site reviews canine seizure disorders, treatment, history and more.

www.canine-epilepsy.net/basics/basics_main.html

Epil-K9

This is a support and news group for owners of seizuring dogs. The group has a substantial library of useful resources which can be viewed at:

www.canine-epilepsy.com 

Page last updated: 5/6/2017