When Pets Experience Seizures: An Owner's Guide to Education, Diagnosis & Treatment

by Dr. Anne Chauvet

When a dog or cat has a seizure, it can be very alarming for an owner, who fears for his companion's safety. Education and preparation, however, can help ensure a pet's welfare.

As a neurologist who works with animals, I treat many dogs and cats that are affected with seizures, particularly those that are not responding to standard drug therapies.

The first thing pet owners should know are how to recognize a seizure and what to do if a pet has one. Seizures occur when there is an overexcitement of neurons(brain cells), and they spontaneously discharge, disrupting the brain's normal function. Evidence that this is occurring can range from classic signs--loss of consciousness, muscle twitching or rigidity--to urination, defecation and salivation. Other behaviors, such as tail or shadow chasing and fly biting (when a dog bites the air), may also be indicative of seizures.

When animals have seizures, they do not roll on their backs as humans can, and they are very unlikely to swallow their tongues. So, do not reach into your pet's mouth. He is not aware of you and has no control over his chomping. You could get severely bit. Instead, iceyour pet's head and neck to "calm down" the brain tissue. Neurons are less likely to discharge at lower temperatures.

Probably the most important thing you can do during a seizure is to talk to your pet and tap her hard on the chest or back to stimulate awareness, because the threshold for neurons to discharge is higher when your pet is awake and aware.

Following the seizure, the pet can exhibit blindness, depression, panting, pacing, lethargy and, occasionally, aggression.

It is crucial to call your vet as soon as possible, and if the seizures last for longer than a minute or two, take your pet to the vet or emergency clinic immediately, because prolonged seizures, known as "status epilepticus" can lead to brain damage or death.

In treating a dog or cat with seizures, information is critical. The first thing I do with clients is to take a detailed history, including all of the records from previous veterinarians, because 90 percent of my treatment plan will be based on this information. That's because our animal friends are fairly good at behaving normally during an exam, or the medication makes them too sedated for an accurate examination.

Clients are encouraged to keep a seizure log. If someone calls me at 2 a.m. because their dog is experiencing a seizure, I will run through a series of questions: How old is your pet? When was the first seizure? What medication is your pet taking, and what are the dosages? Additional questions also may be necessary. You also should keep track of how often the seizures happen, how long they last and how many seizures occur per episode. This will establish a pattern and guide our treatment plan.

If you have a camera, a video of your pet having a seizure can be worth a thousand words.

For example, some pets will have clusters of seizures, which means they have more than one seizure at a time. Others will only have one seizure every few weeks. It is important to keep track of your pet's pattern and an eye on external events that may have an influence.

Also keep track of the lunar calendar. Yes, the pets' seizures are influenced by the moon, so the Farmer's Almanac can come in handy. Barometric changes with storms and weather fronts also can affect seizures. Other influences include females going into heat, pregnancy, allergies and more.

Medication, such as phenobarbital and others, may be prescribed to suppress seizures. Anticonvulsant medication changes the threshold at which the neuron releases its electrical impulse, so it is more difficult for the cells to spontaneously discharge.

Most of the time, medication is given for the life of the pet. However, medications may need to be adjusted over time, always under veterinary care. Pets should never be taken off these medications abruptly because that can trigger status epilepticus and endanger your pet's life.

I encourage clients to become more educated about available seizure medications. Basic information about seizures, treatment and medications is available on my Web site, www.PetNeuro.com. Look for the "Seizures in Pets" handout under "forms & Info."

Most pets that seizure will do so throughout their lives. Our goal is that pets will experience less than one seizure every four to six weeks; our preference is, of course, that they have none. Whether medication, or a combination of meds, is used depends on the pet, the results of blood work and the condition causing the seizures, as well as the owner's schedule and finances. With seizure, there is not just one recipe for success.

Reprinted from Sarasota Pet Magazine, Vol. 4 No. 1, with permission of the author and the publisher.

Dr. Chauvet is a veterinary neurologist and founder of Veterinary Neuro Services, Sarasota, FL. She also has produced the DVD, "Canine Rehabilitation for Sinal Injury or Back Surgery--Including Exercises for Your Pet's Health and Long-Term Fitness." For more information about the practice or the DVD, visit www.PetNeuro.com.