Epilepsy is an ailment that causes seizures or fits. Typically these seizures occur when the dog is resting but sometimes there are clues a few hours before the seizure when the dog behaves differently. After the seizure, there is a period of recovery for a few hours where the pet appears dull or exhausted.
Epilepsy in dogs: what it looks like
When a dog is having a seizure caused by epilepsy, they will generally fall on their side, drool and paddle their legs. They will not be conscious and will not respond to you talking to them. Many times, they will lose control of their bladder and bowels.
Some dogs will have partial seizures and this may look like strange repetitive behaviours such as chasing their tail, clapping their jaws or snapping at imaginary flies.
Epilepsy: the causes
True canine epilepsy is genetic and certain breeds are predisposed: Beagle, Labrador, Golden Retriever, Basset Hound, German Shepherd. Most dogs will have their first seizure between 6 months and 5 years of age.
There are other causes of seizures ranging from metabolic disorders, kidney and liver problems, electrolyte disturbances and brain conditions. Heart disease and movement disorders can also cause symptoms that may look similar to epilepsy.
It is very important to consult your vet after the first seizure in order to establish if it was a seizure or another seizure-like symptom and to rule out any other causes.
The main aim of treatment is to reduce seizures to fewer than 1 seizure every 2-3 months that lasts less than 5 minutes. Unfortunately, an epileptic on treatment is still likely to have a seizure from time to time but these should be very infrequent and should not last long.
Treatment also helps to prevent cluster seizures (multiple seizures that occur in 24 hours). It is essential to prevent cluster seizures, because these can cause brain damage and if they occur rapidly after each other, or if the seizures last a long time the dog can develop heat stress which can be fatal.
We start most epileptic dogs on a drug called phenobarbitone. This is a highly effective and cost effective treatment for epilepsy. Each dog is different and responds differently to the medication and we may adjust the dose or add other medication such as potassium bromide, pexion or Levetiracetam depending on how the individual dog responds and what their seizure pattern looks like.
Keeping a diary
It is important for owners to keep a seizure diary. Note the date of the seizure and how long it lasted as well as any events that happened 24 hours before the seizure that may have been out of the ordinary. Often we can pinpoint a pattern or a trigger for seizures and managing those, helps us to control the seizures overall. Please bring this diary to every appointment.
Because every dog is different and responds differently to medication, we need to do regular blood tests to get the correct dose of phenobarbitone for your dog and to adjust it as time goes on. Your dog will need to visit the clinic at least once a month until the seizures are stable and then every 6 months to monitor them and renew their prescription. At these visits we will also screen for side effects and will be to adjust medication as needed.