I have the dubious honour of having owned 2 epileptic dogs over the years. So I have experienced epilepsy from both sides – as owner and as veterinarian. I have learned a lot and so can you.
Epilepsy is a dysfunction of the brain which makes an animal more prone to experience seizures. In other words, any dog can have seizures but if they happen frequently we name it “epilepsy”. There are a number of underlying causes (most of which we have never defined) but as some breeds are more prone (Dachshund, Golden, Lab and Shelties for example) it is suspected there is an inherited component. The animal is usually under 5 years old and has no other causes found.
If your dog experiences a seizure-like episode it is important to remain calm. Try to take note of the starting time as tracking the length of seizures helps to determine if they are getting worse over time. Make notes on what happens – legs paddling (riding a bicycle) , chewing/chomping jaws, salivating, or urinating. Also try to remember if the dog showed any unusual symptoms before the actual seizure (pre ictal). Your veterinarian will need these details for the animal’s records.
There is no definitive test for epilepsy in dogs. Although MRIs are available through referral to a veterinary neurologist, most owners do not pursue them due to cost. After the first seizure blood work is done to make sure there are no underlying diseases. If nothing is found then it is assumed idiopathic epilepsy is the cause.
Some dogs have seizures only very rarely. My first epileptic dog only had 3 or 4 seizures a year so we decided to not medicate. Other dogs have seizures of increasing frequency or duration and need medication. My second dog was like this – she had one every 12 days if not medicated. Often dogs are started on phenobarbital. This is a pill given by mouth twice daily. Blood work is done until proper blood levels are achieved. If it is ineffective then a liquid called potassium bromide can be added once a day. Other newer drugs are available but luckily most dogs respond to the older, less expensive ones.
Having an epileptic dog is unusual – less than 2% of all dogs will be diagnosed with a seizure condition. It does not have to have a negative effect on your lifestyle. Epileptic dogs can live happy lives and be a loving addition to your family.
by Dr. Jennifer Merry BSc(Agr)