Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes repeated seizures. Epilepsy is often the result of brain injuries, tumors, strokes or other medical conditions. Hereditary epilepsy, also referred to as primary or idiopathic, is not due to any underlying medical condition. It occurs due to genetic abnormalities passed through from parents, and many breeds show predisposition to the genetic mutations. The goal of regular veterinary care and medication is to control seizure frequency and severity while allowing your dog to lead a happy life.
Genetic Predisposition and Diagnosis
Many dog breeds show a predisposition to hereditary epilepsy. These breeds include beagles, keeshonds, Belgian Tervurens, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, vizslas, Shetland sheepdogs, Bernese mountain dogs, Irish wolfhounds, English springer spaniels and Finnish spitzes. Dogs with hereditary epilepsy generally experience their first seizure between the ages of 10 months and 3 years of age. Dogs experiencing their first seizures outside this age window often have underlying medical conditions causing the seizures. Regardless of when the seizures begin, your veterinarian will perform tests to rule out any medical causes before diagnosing hereditary epilepsy.
The grand mal seizure, referred to as a tonic-clonic seizure, begins with muscle stiffening, causing the dog to fall to the floor. This tonic phase often includes facial twitches, vocalizations and loss of bladder and bowel control. The clonic phase includes rhythmic movements, such as jerking or running movements with the legs. Breathing is often difficult, and the tongue turns blue. The average duration of a seizure is two minutes. In most cases, seizures are quick and isolated. Large-breed dogs, however, frequently suffer from cluster seizures, whereby multiple seizures occur within hours. If they occur, seek medical care immediately, as cluster seizures can lead to a condition known as status epilepticus, or a continuous seizure that does not stop.
Antiepileptic medications such as phenobarbital, primidone, potassium bromide and diazepam are often prescribed for the treatment of hereditary epilepsy. Other treatments sometimes used to treat human epilepsy, such as surgery, vagus nerve stimulation and dietary changes are under study for use with dogs and are in experimental stages.
Living With Epilepsy
Most dogs on antiepileptic medication must take the medication for life. Do not attempt to change medication doses or stop medication without consulting your veterinarian. Regular blood testing is required to monitor drug levels and liver function. Medications often contribute to weight gain, so specific weight management plans and diet changes may be necessary. Avoid salty foods in dogs treated with potassium bromide, as they can increase seizure activity.