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February 11, 2019 – Epilepsy is one of the most common neurologic problem in our pets and is characterized by recurrent seizures that arise from abnormal activity in the brain. Seizures caused by epilepsy or other medical conditions can be a mysterious and frightening problem for pet owners. Demystifying seizures not only can help you help your pet, but also help you assist your veterinarian in diagnosing the cause of your pet’s seizures and developing an appropriate treatment plan.

Seizures can take many different forms, ranging from focal seizures, such as facial twitching, to generalized seizures, which involve the entire brain and multiple areas of the body. When most people think of seizures, they usually think of generalized seizures.

Seizure classification

There are many conditions that can cause seizures. Veterinarians often will classify seizures as either intracranial (cause is within the brain) or extracranial (cause is outside the brain). Common diseases that cause seizures include:

  • Idiopathic epilepsy, or seizures with no identifiable cause. Idiopathic epilepsy is one of the most common causes of seizure in dogs and cats. Originally thought to be most common in young animals, we now know it can affect older animals as well.  With treatment, many pets with idiopathic epilepsy live long, healthy and happy lives.
  • Structural epilepsy is caused by an identified problem, such as a brain tumor, brain infection or trauma. It is important to rule out all causes of structural seizures before making a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy.
  • Hypoglycemia can cause seizures if blood glucose dips to very low levels.
  • Liver disease can occasionally cause seizures.
  • Other neurologic diseases, orthopedic problems and heart disease can cause collapse episodes that may appear to be a seizure but are not.

What are the stages of seizure?

A seizure has two or three phases:

  • Prodrome – a long-term (hours to days) change in behavior that precedes a seizure but is rarely identified in animals
  • Ictus – the seizure activity itself
  • Postictal phase – the period where the brain restores normal function

What should I do if I think my pet is having seizures?

If you suspect your pet is having seizures, using your smart phone to record the event can be very helpful in establishing a diagnosis. Using a “nanny cam” is another way to catch suspected seizure activity when no one is at home.

If you can, also take note of the following items to help your veterinarian determine if your pet is having seizures or another medical problem:

  • Timing of seizure activity
  • Duration of seizure activity
  • Whether or not your pet appears conscious
  • If your pet urinates or defecates involuntarily

How are seizures treated?

Treatment of any underlying problems often resolves seizure disorders. For treatment of idiopathic epilepsy, many treatment options exist, including medication and diet changes. Other factors to consider when choosing the best treatment strategy include cost, severity of seizure activity, frequency of seizure activity, and the emotional challenges of caring for an epileptic pet. 

If your pet is diagnosed with a seizure disorder, work with your family veterinarian to decide what diagnostic tests and treatment options are best for you and your pet. If you need to leave your pet at home for any length of time, recording devices, from baby monitors to cameras linked to your phone, are valuable tools to help track your pet’s seizure activity. This data also helps your veterinarian gauge if your pet is responding to treatment.

Morris Animal Foundation has been investing in research focused on dog and cat diseases since 1948.  Our epilepsy research covers a wide range of study topics from the search for genetic links to looking for new and better treatments

Learn more about how we are helping dog and cats affected by neurological, infectious or cardiovascular disease – and many more health conditions – live longer, healthier lives. We are here to help build the knowledge your veterinarian needs to provide the best care for your pet.