Epilepsy is an abnormality of electrical impulses in the brain that causes a seizure of muscles, or loss of motor control in the body. While epilepsy is a common disorder in dogs and fairly unusual in cats, the disorder can occur in any breed of dog or cat.
The majority of epileptic pets are between one and five years of age and act normally between episodes. This form of the disorder is termed idiopathic epilepsy and the cause is unknown. A pet greater than six years of age is more likely to have a brain tumor or heart, kidney or liver disease that is causing the seizures.
The main symptom of epilepsy is a seizure, which can also develop as a result of head trauma, poisoning, disease or an unknown cause. Recognizing a seizure is sometimes difficult. A minor seizure, or petite mal seizure, may cause only a slight loss of motor control. On the other hand, a grand mal seizure is severe, causing an animal to fall to the ground and convulse uncontrollably. In general, a pet will lose bladder and bowel control during a seizure, be unaware of his surroundings and appear abnormal for a period of time after the seizure.
Seizures are characterized by three phases:
- Aura: An altered period of behavior immediately prior to the seizure. Your pet may seem disoriented, apprehensive or restless. He may also seek you out during this period and whine.
- Seizure: The convulsions begin during this period. In a severe seizure, the pet loses consciousness and falls over with his legs rigid and outstretched and breathing is irregular or stops. This period usually lasts ten to thirty seconds.
- Postseizure: The convulsions stop but the pet acts exhausted or confused. Complete recovery to a normal state varies; some pets return to normal within minutes, while others may act disturbed for hours.
"The most important thing to remember if your pet has a seizure is to remain calm and leave the pet alone," says Dr. Lauren Keating, AAHA member. "Don’t pick up your pet-you may get bitten or scratched because your pet is not aware of you during a seizure."
If you think that your pet has had a seizure, take him to a veterinarian for a complete physical examination. Your veterinarian will evaluate your pet’s heart function and general body condition and take a complete history to rule out trauma and toxic exposure. If the physical exam is normal, blood testing will be done to rule out diseases of the kidney and liver. If the blood profile and exam are normal and the dog is under five years of age, idiopathic epilepsy is generally the diagnosis.
Seizures lasting longer than five minutes could be status epilepticus, a dangerous condition in which a rapid succession of grand mal seizures occurs without periods of rest between episodes. This condition is a medical emergency-take your pet to the veterinarian immediately if you observe these symptoms.
If you need to take your pet to your veterinarian while he is seizing, lay a blanket by him. Holding his paws, roll the pet over onto the blanket and beware of his teeth. Have another person help you lift your pet by all four corners of the blanket and place him in the back of the car.
While epilepsy cannot be prevented or cured, cases can be controlled with medication. Pets that have only occasional epileptic episodes may not require medication. If needed, your veterinarian will prescribe an oral anticonvulsant medication that you can administer at home. Treatment is designed to change the pattern of epileptic episodes by reducing the frequency and severity of the seizures, and may stop them altogether. Treatment is often considered a success if the frequency of seizures is limited to one or two per month. Side effects of medication may include sedation and increased thirst, appetite and urination. If your veterinarian prescribes medication, it must be administered consistently. Skipping medication may trigger a seizure.
If your pet has infrequent seizures, your veterinarian may suggest that you keep a record of the episodes rather than immediately prescribing medication. Include the following in your record:
- Time of day
- Related environmental factors
- Length of seizure
- Description of symptoms/severity of seizure
- Length of time for your pet to return completely to normal
The record will indicate if the symptoms and/or frequency of seizures become more severe over time and if medication is necessary. Some pets that have been treated for epilepsy over a period of time can gradually be taken off medication and eventually may not require any medication. Consult your veterinarian before making any changes to your pet’s medication.
Fortunately, most cases of epilepsy in pets can be managed successfully. Epileptic animals may have a slightly shorter life expectancy than normal pets, but with treatment, your pet can enjoy a normal, happy, healthy life.