Seizures are complex in that they can take various forms, have numerous possible causes, and may be a single occurrence or a lifelong condition. Our neurology department can tackle challenging seizure cases that may require specialized diagnostics or treatments. We are pleased to welcome to our staff board-certified veterinary neurologist Dr. Rachel Song who, in addition to medical seizure management, has experience in surgical treatment of seizure causes, which expands our treatment options for your pet.
What is a seizure?
A seizure is caused by abnormal electrical activity in your pet’s cerebral cortex that begins in one spot and spreads to other brain areas. A seizure is not a disease, but a clinical sign of a medical condition affecting your pet. Seizures can cause frightening and disturbing behavior changes, especially the first time your pet is affected. Three seizure types affect pets:
- Generalized seizures — Also known as grand mal or tonic-clonic seizures, generalized seizures cause unconsciousness accompanied by convulsions, and possibly paddling, urination, and defecation.
- Focal seizures — Focal seizures cause involuntary activity that affects only one body part, such as repeated chewing actions.
- Psychomotor seizures — Psychomotor seizures cause abnormal behavior, such as episodes of aggression or spacing out.
Pets mostly suffer generalized seizures, which are characterized by three phases:
- Preictal period — Prior to seizure activity, pets may display behavior changes, such as anxiety, attention-seeking, or hiding.
- Ictal period — Seizure activity occurs during the ictal period, which includes consciousness loss and convulsions.
- Postictal period — After seizure activity ends, pets are often anxious and disoriented, and may be temporarily blind.
What causes seizures in pets?
Epilepsy is a primary seizure disorder caused by chronic abnormal brain activity. Epilepsy commonly causes repeated seizures in pets; however, many other medical conditions can cause seizures, including:
- Infectious diseases, such as canine distemper or rabies
- Meningitis, or inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain, which can be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites
- Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar
- Hypocalcemia, or low blood calcium levels that can develop in lactating females
- Portosystemic shunt, which is an abnormal blood vessel that allows blood to bypass the liver
- Cerebral edema, or brain swelling, caused by a head injury
- Brain tumors and other cancers
What should I do if my pet has a seizure?
Although it goes against your caring instincts, avoid touching your pet during a seizure, because stimulation could prolong its duration. Ensure she will not harm herself by bumping into nearby objects or falling down stairs, and quietly observe the seizure from a few feet away. Most seizures last less than one minute, and your pet should regain consciousness shortly after convulsions stop. During the postictal period, your pet may be disoriented, and may need help to prevent her from falling and bumping into things.
If this is your pet’s first seizure, or she has had previous seizures that were not evaluated by a veterinarian, contact your family veterinarian immediately. Some causes, such as toxicity or hypoglycemia, must be treated immediately to prevent further complications and possible death.
If your pet has a seizure that lasts longer than five minutes, or has more than two seizures in a 24-hour period, she should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately. If your family veterinarian is closed, AESC’s emergency department is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
How will my veterinarian determine my pet’s seizure cause?
Your veterinarian will start with a thorough physical exam, to detect any obvious abnormalities. He or she may also perform tests to help her reach a diagnosis, such as:
- Blood work to evaluate your pet’s organ function
- Specialized blood tests to measure blood sugar, calcium levels, or other blood chemicals
- Imaging techniques, such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to screen for a brain tumor
- Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis
- Infectious-disease testing
No specific test is available for epilepsy, and this diagnosis is typically made if no other seizure cause is identified.
How are seizure disorders treated?
Treatment will depend on your pet’s seizure cause. Seizures caused by toxicity or hypoglycemia require immediate treatment, but will resolve once the primary problem is treated. Some causes, such as a brain tumor or portosystemic shunt, require specialized surgical treatment, which our neurology department can provide. If your pet is diagnosed with epilepsy, she will require life-long medication to control her seizures. Although most pets can be well-controlled on medication, reaching a seizure-free state may not be possible, and determining the correct medications and doses your pet needs may take time.
If your pet has a seizure, consult your family veterinarian immediately. If she is unavailable, or has referred you to a veterinary neurologist for diagnostic testing or treatment, contact us.