Emergency care tips: Seizures

dog lying on sofa

 

In this, the latest of our ‘Emergency Care’ articles, we will discuss seizures in dogs and cats. As an owner, watching your beloved pet have a seizure can be extremely upsetting. Hopefully, this guide will help you to feel a little less worried if this does happen, and will equip you with the right knowledge to safely handle the situation.

What are seizures?

Seizures (commonly referred to as ‘fits’) are caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain. Depending on how far this electrical activity spreads, seizures may appear as small twitches that are restricted to a specific part of your pet’s body (known as partial seizures), or as the full body convulsions that most people associated with the word ‘seizure’ – these are known as generalised seizures.

 

Can I tell when a seizure is about to happen?

Sometimes animals will behave strangely in the time before a seizure, often appearing slightly anxious or worried. It’s very unlikely that you will be able to predict your pet’s first ever seizure based on these behaviours, however some owners with pets that have seizures regularly become adept at recognising these signs over time.

 

What do seizures look like?

As mentioned, different types of seizures can appear quite differently. If your pet has a generalised seizure, you may notice some of the following signs:

  • Shaking of the whole body and ‘paddling’ of the limbs
  • Glazed eyes (and loss of consciousness)
  • Excessive drooling
  • Their jaw clamping shut
  • Involuntary urination or defaecation (weeing or pooing)
  • Vocalisation (whimpering or ‘crying’)

Seizures generally last between 30 and 90 seconds. Once your pet wakes up from the seizure, you may still notice some strange behaviour, including:

  • Apparent blindness
  • Confusion/disorientation
  • Increased eating and drinking
  • Pacing/wandering behaviour

This ‘post-ictal’ (post-seizure) behaviour can last for up to 24 hours or longer.

What to do if your pet has a seizure?

 

STAY CALM. Try to remember the advice below, and remember that many animals have seizures every day and most of them recover very quickly. Remember that your pet is likely to be totally unaware of what is going on, and is not suffering.

  • Start a timer straight away – it will be useful for your vet to know how long the seizure lasts.
  • In general you should avoid touching your pet, however, if they are in a dangerous place (the top of the stairs or somewhere else off the ground) then try to move them to the floor if it is safe to do so. Once they’re on the floor, clear a space around them, removing any dangerous items like wires or objects they could knock over.
  • Don’t try to restrain them – if you’re worried about them hitting their head on something, pad the surrounding area with blankets/cushions.
  • Keep them cool – don’t wrap them in blankets as they can easily overheat (due to all the heat generated by the muscle activity during a seizure).
  • Don’t put your hands near their mouth, they may be involuntarily clenching their jaw, and might accidentally bite you if you do! It’s a rumour that people or animals ‘swallow their tongue’ when they have a seizure.
  • Keep children and other animals away from them.
  • Reduce sound and light stimuli (turn off any lights, televisions or radios nearby).
  • Try to take a video – this will be useful for your vet later.
  • Call your vet ASAP for advice. If your vet is shut, they will often have an answerphone message redirecting you to a nearby emergency clinic. Failing that, find a local emergency clinic via your search engine.
  • When your pet starts to come too, try speaking softly and gently to them as they recover. But don’t overstimulate them.
  • If your pet regularly has seizures, your vet may suggest that you keep a diary longer term. This allows your vet a better understanding of how the seizure activity is developing, and can also allow them to measure the response to changes in the treatment protocol.

 

sleeping cat


Causes of seizures

 

*Note: If your pet has a seizure, it’s crucial that you take them to your own vet who will be able to give you specific advice based on an individual assessment. The below is for general information only.*

Many factors can cause seizures in dogs and cats. Common causes include:

  • Underlying generalised illness – for example severe and advanced liver or kidney disease, or uncontrolled diabetes can all lead to seizures.
  • Structural brain problems – infectious, inflammatory, and neoplastic (cancerous) diseases can all cause structural brain changes which can cause seizures.
  • Toxicity – various poisons can induce seizures. If you’re concerned that your pet has eaten or drunk something they shouldn’t have, contact your vet immediately!
  • Head trauma – a bad knock to the head can induce seizures. Even if your pet doesn’t have a seizure, they should always go to the vet for a neurological exam if they bang their head badly.
  • Overheating – heat stroke from spending too long in the sun (or too long in a hot car!) can also cause seizures.
  • Epilepsy – pets with epilepsy may have regular seizures. Depending on the frequency and severity of the seizures, your vet may prescribe anti-seizure medication to keep these under control.

 

What is epilepsy?

 

Most of the time when we talk about epilepsy, we are referring to ‘idiopathic epilepsy’. This means an animal is having seizures, and no specific cause can be identified. As the name ‘idiopathic’ suggests, this is a very complicated condition that we still don’t fully understand. Pets with this condition often have regular seizures, but the frequency and severity can vary greatly.

Idiopathic epilepsy is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that your vet will need to rule out other causes to diagnose it. However, certain factors may give your vet a clue – for example idiopathic epilepsy is much more likely to occur in dogs than cats, and it tends to start between 6 months and 6 years of age. Certain breeds of dog are also more likely to develop idiopathic epilepsy, including:

  • Irish setters
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Keeshonds
  • Dachshunds
  • Beagles
  • Poodles
  • German Shepherds
  • Cocker Spaniels

 

 

Hopefully, the above information will make the possibility of your pet having a seizure a little less intimidating. If you remember nothing else, remember to STAY CALM, look after your pet’s basic needs, and call your vet as soon as possible.

Meet the Author

James Henderson

James graduated Cambridge University and went straight into general practice as a small animal vet. James always had a keen interest and passion for nutrition and its role in the treatment of disease in small animals.

In his spare time James enjoys travelling, playing rugby, reading and spending time with his cat.