By: Dr. Clayton Greenway, B.Sc., DVM | Jan 4, 2017
First of all, don’t panic. Seizures in cats and dogs are rarely fatal and if it is the first time, they are often short and harmless.
Second, if your pet is seizing, make sure it’s in a place of relative safety and prevent self-injury to itself from the thrashing by grabbing a pillow or blanket and positioning it around or under the head. Keep your hands away from your pet’s mouth. Once your pet gains some awareness of its situation, it will be confused and likely scared, so it may behave in a way you’re not used to. In its confusion, it may try to protect itself and lash out and attack.
Third, try your best to record the length of time the seizure activity occurred. When clients tell me how long a seizure was they tend to think it went on for minutes when in fact it was possibly only 20-30 seconds. The drama of the event makes it seem like a much longer time.
The fourth step would be to try to book an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as you can after the seizure but keep in mind that it is not an emergency. Heading to your nearest emergency clinic or regular veterinarian is always a wise choice, but doesn’t have to happen immediately. Start considering immediate attention if the seizure continues for longer than five minutes. A seizure that is still occurring at 20 minutes can certainly be fatal but this duration of time is rare, particularly if the condition is new.
Seizures are either extracranial or intracranial. Extracranial means that the seizure was caused by an anomaly in the body outside of the head, whereas intracranial seizures are caused by anomalies in the brain. When a patient of mine has a seizure, I first perform a series of diagnostics to determine if there is a disease process outside of the head that could have caused the seizure such as low blood sugar, an electrolyte imbalance, liver impairment or other diseases. This is checked by running diagnostics such as blood work, urine tests, radiographs, ultrasounds and other more specific tests based on the initial findings. If the body looks free of a cause for the seizure, I then consider diagnostics to evaluate for intracranial causes. Usually, these diagnostics are done by specialists and neurologists who are able to perform a CT scan, MRI, or other specific diagnostics depending on the patient’s condition.
It’s extremely important to keep notes about what happens when your pet experiences a seizure. This includes the date and time of the seizure, its duration, a description of its activity and what the patient did in the minutes leading up to the seizure and after it. Catching a seizure on video is especially helpful to us when determining the next steps in evaluating your pet.
A seizure is rarely an emergency as one seizure is rarely fatal. Treatment with drugs can have negative side effects immediately or over time and their use should be judiciously considered before initiating them. For instance, if a pet has a seizure once a month that last 30-45 seconds, I am unlikely to start a lifetime of seizure medication for that. Work with your veterinarian to determine when treatment should be implemented in your particular case and it could be based on both your concerns and your pet’s health concerns. Keep in mind that all seizures may not be noticed and could be going on when you’re not at home.
Seizures come in all shapes and sizes. A common seizure may be a classic one that creates a body-wide convulsion, but I’ve also seen seizures so small that it simply caused occasional fluttering of an eyelid. By recording the event, your veterinarian will be better equipped to initiate a suitable treatment for you and your pet’s particular situation.
Witnessing your pet having a seizure is always distressing, but keep in mind that a single, short seizure is relatively benign. A good rule of thumb is not to seek aggressive treatment until the seizures are increasing in frequency, such as more than once a month. If you notice an increase in the frequency of seizure activity, as in three within a 24-hour period, or increase in duration from what is typically experienced, such as two to three minutes when previous seizures have always been 30 seconds, then treatment needs to be seriously considered.
Depending on the cause of the seizures, there are many ways to treat them. Addressing the underlying cause of the seizure is most desirable. For example, there is a common blood vessel anomaly that can occur in or around the liver called a shunt which can lead to toxins in the general circulation which can cause seizures. If this is the cause, there are treatments such as diet and medications to reduce these toxins. In the case of epilepsy in cats and dogs caused within the brain, there are dozens of anti-epileptic drugs that can be used immediately or on a lifetime basis to control the seizures. All of these drugs have different pros and cons. Some act quickly where others take a long time. Some create a tolerance where perpetual dose increases are necessary where others don’t have this effect. The side effects can vary greatly among them. In addition, a combination of drugs can be ideal for your pet versus a single medication and keep in mind that just like us, all dogs will respond to drugs differently. For instance, a drug that works really well in one dog, may not work at all in another. There can be a time of trial and error to create the ideal treatment regime.
Veterinary neurologists and internal specialists exist that have advanced knowledge and experience with seizures beyond the general veterinary practitioner in most cases. They also likely have access to drugs that a general practitioner has never even used before which further increases the options and chance for an ideal therapy.