causes of seizures in dogs
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Seizures In Dogs: What Are Causes And Treatments?

Seizures in dogs can be very scary, and I know because I witnessed my first Cocker Spaniel having a seizure. I had no idea at the time that dog seizures could appear suddenly, without warning, at any age, and to any dog. Witnessing a dog having a seizure is scary, especially if the pet parent is unprepared.

I learned a lot about seizures in dogs, what causes them, how to treat them, and why some dogs and breeds seem more prone to seizures. Causes of canine seizures include side effects from medications, chemical exposure, over-vaccination, low blood sugar levels, diabetes, ingestion of toxins, heat exhaustion, hormonal imbalances, heartworms, injury or accident, and even breed genetics.

Treating a dog with seizures can be challenging but not impossible. First and foremost is determining if the dog actually had a seizure or some other type of acute neurological issue. A veterinarian or veterinary neurologist can determine the type of seizure, as treatment depends on the underlying cause.

If you landed on this article, your dog likely had a seizure, you want to learn more about seizures in dogs, and you hope to never witness your dog in the throes of a seizure ever again. Stay with me for causes, types of seizures in dogs, treatments, what the experts say, and get up close and personal with dog parents who care for dogs with seizures on a regular basis.

dogs who can get seizures

What Is A Canine Seizure?

According to the International Veterinary Epilepsy Task Force, “epilepsy refers to a heterogeneous disease that is characterized by the presence of recurrent, unprovoked seizures resulting from an abnormality of the brain.”

Seizures are sometimes called fits or convulsions, and epilepsy is a neurological disorder in dogs. Canine seizures present in many different ways and can be genetic, caused by a structural problem in the brain, or be of unknown cause.

Types Of Seizures In Dogs

Seeing a dog having a seizure is difficult and terrifying, but it doesn’t mean your dog is destined to a lifetime of seizures. There are many types of seizures, and understanding the difference is helpful in managing them.

The way seizures are classified in humans is not the same way they are classified in dogs. The International Veterinary Epilepsy Task Force characterizes seizures in two basic ways: generalized and focal.

There are three stages to a seizure, much like seizures in humans:

The aura period: An aura in medical terms is a sensation that occurs before the event, such as a seizure. I happen to get a “light” type of aura before I get a severe migraine. Dogs may seem nervous, anxious, hide, or perhaps bark or whine before a seizure. Sometimes, there are no signs that your dog is about to have a seizure and not all dogs experience aura.

The ictal period: Ictus means characterized by an acute epileptic seizure, which is the main phase. Seizures can last seconds or minutes, and sometimes longer.

The postictal phase: Post means after, so the postical period comes after the seizures. Dogs may seem disoriented, sleepy, confused, go blind, or even become ravenous or thirsty. Every dog is different.

No matter what type of seizure your dog has, always seek veterinary attention. Never administer any type of medication or supplement unless directed to do so by a qualified veterinarian who is aware of your dog’s case.

In addition to the three phases of a seizure, there are several types of seizures in dogs. Not all dogs have the same type of seizure, and some dogs, like my first Cocker Spaniel, will have one seizure and then never again. Here are the types of seizures a dog can have:

Type of SeizureCommon Signs
Grand mal (generalized) seizures
(tonic-clonic)
Jerking of limbs, chewing movement of the jaw, losing consciousness, falling to the side, convulsions, salivating, uncontrolled urination or defecation, lasting seconds to minutes. Abnormal electrical activity happens throughout a dog’s brain. Clonic refers to jerking movements.
Tonic seizureStiffening of muscles that may last several minutes
Focal seizuresUnusual movements of one limb or one side of a dog’s body, facial twitches, limb “paddling.” Consciousness may or may not be impaired. Abnormal electrical activity happens in one part of the dog’s brain. Focal seizures may become generalized.
Psychomotor seizuresThe dog may “attack” an imaginary object, chase his tail, seem to be hallucinating, or “fly biting” (not all odd behaviors are seizures). Psychomotor seizures are a type of focal seizure.
Idiopathic epilepsy seizuresSeizures with no known cause, may or may not be genetic.
Cluster seizuresTwo or more seizures occurring within 24 hours, a group of seizures.
Status epilepticusA very serious condition where a single seizure goes longer than five minutes or generalized seizures occur one after another. These are life-threatening and require emergency veterinary care.

How Do I Know If My Dog Is Having a Seizure?

Not all canine seizures manifest the same way, as indicated in the chart above. Your dog may be having a seizure with typical jerking movements that last moments to minutes. Other dogs may experience staring episodes, the inability to walk, or even falling to one side.

According to Adam Christman, DVM, MBA, Chief Veterinary Officer for dvm360, says he sees a lot of dogs, including Cocker Spaniels, in his practice whose pet parents believe are having a seizure, when they are not.

“Pet parents think their Cocker is having a grand mal seizure when in fact it is syncope (fainting) episode from heart disease,” he said. “Most dogs have seizures because of a hereditary trait. “

Dr. Christman says research has come a long way where a dog DNA test may identify potential genetic markers for seizures. He sees quite a few of the “fly biting” or focal seizures more so than the grand mal seizures in his practice.

There is no single definitive test to determine if your dog has epilepsy. A veterinary neurologist can work with you to rule out other possibilities while performing a series of tests. Testing may include a physical examination, blood work, brain MRI, and possibly a spinal tap.

Not all seizures or convulsions in dogs are epilepsy. A dog can have an isolated seizure, but it doesn’t mean he has epilepsy. Your dog’s vet may or may not recommend medications unless your pooch has further seizures.

cocker spaniel after having a seizure
Sulley of Sarah Wall.

What Should I Do If My Dog Is Seizing?

Should your dog have a seizure or suspected seizure, follow this checklist:

  1. Keep your hands and fingers away from the dog’s mouth, and he may unintentionally snap or bite during a seizure.
  2. If the dog is near a staircase or dangerous area, pull him gently away by the scruff of his neck.
  3. If possible place a pillow or soft cushion near or under his head.
  4. If the dog has a collar on, ensure he can’t get caught on anything.
  5. If there are other animals in the household, remove them from the room, as they may get frightened.
  6. If a dog has a long seizure lasting several minutes or has more than one seizure in a day, he can experience brain damage, high body temperature, and experience heart rate and breathing issues, so seek veterinary help immediately. Seizures lasting more than five minutes or that occur in clusters have a high mortality rate if not treated.
  7. If there is any question as to whether your dog is experiencing a seizure, try to videotape the episode and write down exactly what happened before, during, and after the episode.
  8. After a seizure, dogs may be disoriented, fatigued, or confused. Allow him to rest and make water readily available.
  9. Once the seizure has passed, reassure your dog by petting him and helping him to stay calm. Provide blankets and pillows for when they come out of the seizure.
  10. Follow medication instructions from your veterinarian if your dog is being treated for seizures.
  11. Call your dog’s veterinarian so you can decide on the best course of action for your dog. The vet may want to see your dog or refer you to a veterinary neurologist.

Dr. Christman recommends pet parents stay calm if their dog seizes. He is a huge advocate of a stress-less environment, as some dogs experience seizures from specific triggers.

Triggers include, but are not limited to, excessive noise, television sounds, beeping or high-pitched sounds, yelling or arguing. A dog can have a seizure during extreme periods of fear from fireworks or thunderstorms.

There is a theory that triggers that induce seizures in a dog make them more genetically inclined to have epilepsy. Seizures that last a long time make it more likely permanent brain damage will occur if the seizures are not stopped under the care of a veterinarian.

Thankfully, there are things dog moms and dads can do to identify stressors and triggers and track a dog’s symptoms. Stay tuned for more about that shortly.

Fact: Dogs cannot swallow their tongue during a seizure.

What Not To Do If Your Dog Has A Seizure

  1. Do not scream, panic, or try to stop the dog from seizing.
  2. Do not try to move your dog by picking him up. You risk harming the dog or getting bit.
  3. Don’t administer medication, whether prescription, over-the-counter or holistic without your vet’s permission. It can actually make things worse.
  4. Don’t assume your dog won’t have another seizure.

What Causes Seizures In Dogs?

There are many reasons dogs have seizures, and the reasons vary from dog to dog:

  • Medication side effects
  • Stress
  • Nutritional issues
  • Chemical exposure
  • Over-vaccination
  • Degenerative diseases
  • Infectious diseases, such as distemper
  • Metabolic diseases, such as thyroid issues, Cushing’s syndrome, or Addison’s disease
  • Low blood sugar levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Brain tumor
  • Liver and/or kidney problems
  • Ingestion of poisons or toxins
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Heartworm disease
  • Injury or accident
  • Genetics/hereditary

Integrative and functional medicine veterinarian, Dr. Laurie Coger, reported on the FDA update warning vets and pet parents about flea and tick medications. The FDA talks about the known neurological and other adverse reactions of some flea and tick oral medications here.

Dr. Coger also does not recommend Seresto collars.

Here are the things I use for non-chemical flea and tick prevention in my dog.

The American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation indicates at least 26 dog breeds have shown some sort of hereditary component to epilepsy. Some of those breeds include:

  • Beagle
  • Belgian Tervuren
  • Boxer
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Dachshund
  • Golden Retriever
  • Keeshond
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Poodle
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Siberian Husky
  • Saint Bernards
  • Vizsla

Epilepsy is found in all breeds of dogs and mixed breeds as well. As a Cocker Spaniel mom of 30 years, I can attest to the seemingly higher-than-average number of seizures that seem to affect the breed.

cocker spaniel after a seizure

True Stories Of Dogs With Seizures

Sulley

Sarah Wall’s Cocker Spaniel, Sulley, started having seizures at one year old and continues to have them six years later. What started as one seizure every few months has evolved into two a month for the past few months.

Sarah uses CBD oil when Sulley has a seizure, but if he continues on with regular seizures, the vet wants him on prescription medication. The cause of Sulley’s seizures has not been determined. He also has mitral valve disease.

Brynley

Jen Angradi owns a Cocker Spaniel who is my dog’s niece. Brynley began having seizures at the age of two. When she was five years old, they became frequent enough to warrant medication from the vet.

Since being on phenobarbital for several years, Brynley’s seizures have been under control. If she has more than one seizure in 24 hours or they last longer than five minutes, Brynley is to see a vet immediately.

Brody

Brody is a Cocker Spaniel belonging to Joanne Schlund. Her dog began having seizures after taking Nexguard. The seizures have gone on for years, but Schlund stopped giving Brody the Nexguard.

Schlund’s daughter had a dog who died after taking a dose of Bravecto.

Delilah

Cathy Whitney’s Cocker Spaniel, Delilah, used to have two to three seizures a day after receiving a dose of Revolution. Since stopping the medication, Delilah has been seizure-free.

Tucker

Kimberlee Joy Perfetti says her Cocker, Tucker, has been seizure-free for 3-1/2 years, since being placed on medications. He was first prescribed phenobarbital then switched to Keppra. Tucker was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy in 2016. 

Dave

Dave was on phenobarbital for years. The Cocker Spaniel would have what his mom, Suzy Foster, calls “breakthrough seizures.” He was placed on phenobarbital, and the vet checked his blood work regularly since pheno can be hard on a dog’s liver. Dave’s vet added a liver supplement to the dog’s regimen.

Balsam

Pat Conmy’s Cocker, Balsam, had a seizure about 12 hours after the apartment exterminator came by to spray a treatment. She never had a seizure prior and hasn’t had any since.

Mark

Jan Eubanks reports her Cocker Spaniel, Mark , started having seizures when he was two years old. He was placed on phenobarbital, but because it may cause liver problems, he was also put on potassium bromide.

At the time, the pharmacy mixed it into a compound. Jan says it was more expensive than pheno, but he was on it for many years without side effects. Mark lived to be 17 years old. As he got older, the vet cut back on the dosage and he remained seizure-free.

Stewart

Nancy Wattenbarger lost her Cocker Spaniel, Stewart, after a one-time seizure. Stewart was 14 years old when he had a massive seizure. She rushed him to the vet, but he never recovered and passed away. The vet believes it was likely a brain tumor.

How Are Seizures In Dogs Treated?

Seizures are a characteristic of epilepsy, and sometimes recurrent seizures take place over a period of time. One of the first line of treatments for seizures in dogs are anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs).

According to veterinary neurologist Dr. David Brewer for Clinician’s Brief, AEDs are generally recommended for dogs having seizures if:

  • The dog has more than two seizures every six months
  • The dog experiences cluster seizures
  • After any episode of status epilepticus
  • When the period after the seizure is unusual or prolonged

Giving a dog medication for seizure prevention, such as phenobarbital, can be scary but necessary. The goal is to reduce seizure frequency by at least 50 percent while keeping side effects at a minimum.

Typical medications used by veterinarians for the management of canine seizures include:

  • Bromide
  • Gabapentin
  • Levetiracetam
  • Phenobarbital
  • Pregabalin
  • Zonisamide

As of January, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the conditional approval of “KBroVet-CA1 (potassium bromide chewable tablets, Pegasus Laboratories Inc) to help manage seizures in dogs with idiopathic epilepsy.”

What this means is although potassium bromide has been a staple for controlling seizures in many canine patients, no veterinary drug sponsor ever applied for approval until now. It is the first conditionally approved treatment for idiopathic canine epilepsy under r the reauthorized 2018 FDA’s Animal Drug User Fee Act.

“Seizure medications are powerful drugs and are to be carefully followed by the veterinarian.  Do not make any adjustments without consulting with your veterinarian,” Dr. Christman shared. ” Follow up labwork is VERY important to dogs on anticonvulsant therapy.  Be sure to provide the means to make sure follow up labwork is done (phenobarbital monitoring profile, zonisamide level, etc) to ensure the safety and efficacy of the drug being administered to your dog.”

Fact: Although phenobarbital is more affordable than Keppra, pheno can be harder on the liver.

cocker spaniel who has seizures

CBD For Dog Seizures

Because we are a blog all about reality and fact-based information and experiences, we must discuss the use of CBD products in the treatment of canine seizures.

Stephanie McGrath, DVM, MS, sees a lot of epileptic patients. McGrath led a small study on the use of CBD to treat canine epilepsy. Key outcomes of the study include:

  • No adverse behavioral effects were reported by owners.
  • About 90% of the dogs receiving CBD had a reduction in seizure activity.

CBD is still being studied at CSU and elsewhere for its efficacy on seizures in dogs. You can read more about the CSU study here. A larger clinical trial funded by the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation is underway at CSU.

I did my own research on CBD oil for dogs, and here’s what I learned:

CBD Oil For Dogs

Some pet products touted as containing CBD actually have none at all. Buyer beware, always talk to your dog’s vet, and if possible seek the services of a holistic veterinarian.

More about pet products that claim to have CBD but do not here.

I interviewed many dog parents for this article, and many of them use CBD products for pets with varying degrees of success. There really aren’t enough studies on CBD in dogs yet, and vets will not make recommendations because of the lack of data. In terms of purity, source, and concentration you must be careful.

Ironically, dog mom, Naomi Lukaszewski was fostering a dog who had a big seizure during an outdoor adoption event. The dog was rushed to a vet, and he recovered fine. Naomi discovered the CBD oil she was giving the dog was actually a seizure trigger for him.

The brand I have recently switched to is Pet Releaf, which I’ve been using for arthritis pain relief for Dexter. I can make no claims or promises, but I am a fan.

In terms of my dog’s vet, she sells a brand called Endo Blend, which is vet-approved, and is a novel blend of phytocannabinoids with no detectable THC and is third-party tested for contaminants

Resource To Track Dog Health Records

How To Track A Dog’s Seizures

Dr. Christman recommends parents of seizure dogs keep a journal and include the following information in it each time their dog has a seizure:

  • Date and time
  • Was there a trigger that set the dog off?
  • Any noises or things that upset the dog?

“Keeping a journal helps you and your veterinarian create the best treatment plan for your dog,” Dr. Christman stated. “Always follow your veterinarian’s recommendations, too.”

I created the Dogminder for under $10. The DogMinder is a canine health and wellness medical journal that contains plenty of space to track your dog’s seizures. You can track:

  • Dog seizures
  • Medications
  • Side effects
  • Detailed history of any changes
  • Triggers
  • And much more…

Full of space for important information and tips to help dogs stay healthy, the Dogminder is a resource you will reach for time and again for everyday occurrences and important changes in your dog’s overall health and well-being.

seizures in dogs causes

Emergency Items To Have On Hand

Dorothy Wills-Raftery has had several dogs with epilepsy, and she wrote a book and created an emergency epilepsy first aid kit.

Alternative Ways Of Treating Canine Seizures

A new study published in 2020 in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine “has concluded that supplementing diet with medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil has the potential to reduce the number of seizures and improve the quality of life for dogs with refractory epilepsy.”

Dr Rowena Packer, BBSRC Research Fellow at the Royal Veterinary College,  concluded, “Historically, diet has not been considered a key part of epilepsy management, but along with other recent findings, these results indicate that nutrition likely plays an important role in seizure control.”

Colleen O’Fallon, owner of Sweet Paws Bakery, has a 16-year-old Cocker Spaniel named Abby who began having seizures 12 years ago. At the time, Colleen says most vets used phenobarbital. She wasn’t fond of the side effects, so she tried a holistic path to manage Abby’s seizures.

“She stared seeing a holistic vet who did acupuncture and started her on di tan tang herbs,” Colleen shared. “With that routine she was going a year or two without a seizure. We have always done bloodwork to see if something was causing the seizures but nothing was found.”

NoteWe are an Amazon affiliate, so each purchase you make through these links helps us to keep our lights on and the website running. I earn a small income if you click through and purchase something on the links indicated. Please see my disclosure policy for details.

A few years ago, Abby’s seizures became more frequent so Colleen saw a holistic veterinarian after reading the news of the MCT study. She decided to start adding CocoTherapy’s Triplex MCT-3 oil to her food which she loves and has really helped so far.

The Future of Treating Canine Seizures

Compared to humans, who can monitor what they feel and what happened prior to a seizure, pet parents have limitations on monitoring their dogs’ seizures. The AKC Canine Health Foundation says “preliminary research on intracranial electroencephalography (iEEG) in dogs suggests that the technique might be a way to predict seizures, which has the potential to be incredibly helpful for individuals who currently suffer from seemingly random epileptic events.”

There are many causes of canine seizures, but there are many ways to treat them, prevent them in many cases, and help your dog live a long, happy, healthy life.

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3 Comments

  1. Balsam so far has had no other seizures. His was the kind that presented with stiff, jerky leg movements as he tried to come across the room to me, and he was unable to stand upright. He almost looked like he was crouching and his legs appeared to “stab” at the ground. I sat on the floor and held him in my lap. I tried to lift his head and check for wild eye movements (see next paragraph) but there were none. However, his muscles were totally stiff and locked up. Suddenly all his muscles relaxed, and he got up and walked away. So far I’m assuming it was related to the chemicals the exterminator used. He is 7-1/2.

    Amarette (RIP) was diagnosed with idiopathic vestibular disease. She had three attacks almost exactly two weeks apart each time. Her eyeballs would bounce wildly, she would stagger and fall down as though she was drunk, and immediately afterwards would have to poop. It left her with a head tilt which she recovered from the first time; but after the third attack, the head tilt became permanent. She was 10 when this happened, and I stopped competing with her in agility because there was no warning before each attack, and I didn’t want to take a chance that she might fall off a piece of equipment. She was
    15-1/2 when I lost her.

  2. My dog had a seizure for the first time yesterday and it definitely scared me. I freaked out because I’ve never seen a seizure and I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was going to lose my fur baby. It was sooo painful to watch and I cry just thinking about it. I don’t even know what type of seizure he had bc it didn’t look as severe as some videos I’ve seen. Now I am definitely going to educate myself on what to do and how to prevent it because I don’t want to see my baby go through that again because it was so painful for me. I cannot stand the thought that a seizure could take my baby away.

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