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Seizures common in dogs

Q: Our veterinarian diagnosed our dog Crew with epilepsy and prescribed medication, which has significantly decreased the frequency and severity of his seizures. About the only time Crew has a seizure is soon after someone visits our home. Is this unusual?

A: Many humans with epilepsy recognize that certain factors, most notably stress but also sleep deprivation, infectious disease and hormonal changes, can precipitate seizures. The same is true in dogs, where epilepsy is the most common neurologic disorder.

In a recent study, veterinarians questioned families of 50 epileptic dogs about factors that precipitated their seizures. The researchers learned that lifestyle events and whether the dog was sterilized played a role.

Seizures occurred in 42% of females during their heat cycles and in 33% of unsterilized males exposed to a female dog in heat. So, it's important to sterilize any dog diagnosed with epilepsy.

Other factors that elicited seizures were visitors to the home (in 30% of dogs); a change in the dog's life situation (27%); changes in the daily routine, altered sleep patterns or going to an unfamiliar place (24%); hot weather (22%); stress or excitement (21%); fear (19%); and intense exercise or illness (16%).

Minimizing whatever precipitating factors affect the individual dog can help improve seizure control. So, let your veterinarian know about Crew's increased seizure frequency when people visit. Your vet may prescribe an additional medication you can give Crew to decrease anxiety and seizures when visitors are expected.

Your vet will try to determine the cause in an effort to prevent further seizures. Common triggers in young dogs are toxins such as lead or the artificial sweetener xylitol, infectious diseases such as canine distemper, metabolic disturbances such as hypoglycemia or liver disease, and head trauma.

Epilepsy, which is characterized by recurrent seizures not due to any of these physical causes, generally starts at one to four years of age. When seizures begin in an older dog, they often are rooted in a metabolic disturbance or brain tumor.

While Crew’s seizure is fresh on your mind, start a seizure diary, where you’ll document this seizure and any further ones. Record the length and description of the convulsions as well as any abnormal behaviors before or immediately after the seizure. Note whether Crew vocalized or experienced urinary or bowel incontinence. Include the times of Crew’s last meal and exercise, and whether she was overly excited before the seizure.

If Crew has another seizure, take a video from the moment her abnormal behavior or movements begin until she is normal again. Then email the video to your veterinarian.

During a seizure, protect Crew from falling off furniture or tumbling down stairs. Keep yourself safe, too, by avoiding Crew’s mouth. During a seizure, she is unconscious and unable to control her muscles, so she may bite down hard.

If Crew is still convulsing after five minutes, or if she experiences two or more seizures within a 24-hour period, take her to a veterinarian immediately. Sustained seizures increase body temperature and can damage organs.

Fortunately, medications, acupuncture and dietary changes can decrease the frequency and severity of seizures.

Editor’s Note: Knowing how to stabilize your dog during an emergency can help save its life. Here are some common emergency situations and pet first aid tips.

Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at

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