Seizures in Dogs: What to Look for & How to Respond

Note how often your dog has seizures and how long each seizure lasts when you talk to your veterinarian.
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Seizures are episodes of involuntary movement and convulsions with altered consciousness that can be very disturbing for pet owners to witness. Seizure activity happens inside the brain, but may result from a variety of disorders, some of which originate outside of the brain. Seizures in dogs are generally not life threatening, but do require veterinary attention to determine the underlying cause of the seizure disorder and develop an appropriate treatment plan for lessening the frequency of the episodes.

What is a Seizure?

A seizure is a disruption of electrical activity in the brain that results in convulsions and rapid alternating tension and relaxation of the body. There are several different types of seizures; each type of seizure will have a varying degree of loss of consciousness experienced by the dog. Seizures are most broadly classified as generalized or focal seizures. Generalized seizures include the classic seizure that most people are familiar with -- the grand mal. Focal seizures start in a specific area of the brain and either remain localized, resulting in only facial twitching or excessive blinking, for instance, or may spread and become generalized, leading to a grand mal seizure. Animals will lose consciousness during a grand mal seizure, but will remain aware of their surroundings during a focal seizure.

What to Look for

A seizure typically happens in three stages. The first stage, known as the aura or prodromal stage, is a brief period of abnormal behavior before the seizure. Some dogs do not show much during the aura, some will be anxious and seek attention from their owners, while others will withdraw and hide. As a typical generalized seizure begins, a dog first falls to his side and becomes rigid and tense for up to 30 seconds, then the body begins to rhythmically tense and relax. In a generalized seizure, he will be unconscious even though his eyes remain open. Many dogs will vocalize, and some may urinate or defecate during the seizure. After a dog experiences a seizure, he will experience a "post-ictal" phase that can be very short lived, or last for as long as a couple of days. During the post-ictal phase, the dog will be disoriented and confused. Verifying that your dog experiences a post-ictal phase after a seizure episode will help your veterinarian rule out other conditions that can mimic seizure activity. You should also note what your dog was doing prior to the seizure activity, and make a mental note of any changes in his diet or environment in the weeks or month leading up to the seizure.

How to Respond to a Seizure

It is understandably frightening to observe your dog having a seizure, but know that the dog is not experiencing any pain, and that most seizures are not life-threatening. Most seizures will last less than two minutes; in fact, you should make a point to look at a clock and determine how long the seizure lasts, as this is helpful information to give your veterinarian. You may move your pet to a safe, flat area if he is somewhere that he could hit his head or fall off furniture. Do not ever put your hands near the mouth of a seizing dog. Most seizing dogs will involuntarily chomp their jaws so you can be bitten if you attempt to move their tongue. Be aware that during the post-ictal phase after a seizure, your dog will have altered mentation. He may be blind for a period of time, and he may not have his usual personality. Dogs may be irritable and snap or bite during the post-ictal phase, even if they do not normally act this way. Give your dog space, and keep children and other pets away until he seems like himself again.

When to Seek Immediate Veterinary Attention

If a seizure lasts more than five to 10 minutes, you need to bring your pet to a veterinary emergency clinic right away. Uncontrolled generalized seizure activity that lasts longer than 30 minutes can result in permanent brain damage. This does not include the post-ictal phase of the seizure, which can normally last for several hours. Additionally, if your dog has multiple seizures over a relatively short period of time -- more than three seizures in one day -- he should be seen at an emergency facility.