By Roger W. Gfeller, DVM, DipACVECC, Michael W. Thomas, DVM, and Isaac Mayo
The VIN emergency medicine folder staff
A seizure is any sudden and uncontrolled movement of the animal's body caused by abnormal brain activity. Seizures may be very severe and affect all of the body, or quite mild, affecting only a portion of the pet. The pet may or may not seem conscious or responsive, and may urinate or have a bowel movement.
Seizure activity that lasts longer than 3 to 5 minutes can cause severe side effects, such as fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) or brain (cerebral edema). A dramatic rise in body temperature (hyperthermia) can also result, causing internal organ damage. Seizures can be caused by epilepsy, toxins, low blood sugar, brain tumors and a host of other medical conditions. Your veterinarian can help you determine the cause of seizures in your pet, and if necessary, can refer you to a specialist to help with the diagnosis or treatment of seizures. In general, animals less than one year of age typically have seizures due to a birth defect such as hydrocephalus (water on the brain) or a liver defect called a portosystemic shunt (among others). Animals that have their first seizure between 1 and 5 years of age typically suffer from epilepsy, while those over 5 years of age often have another medical condition causing the seizures such as a brain tumor, stroke or low blood sugar. These are general guidelines, however, and they may or may not apply to your pet.
All pets that have a seizure should have lab tests to help diagnose the underlying cause, and make sure their organs can tolerate any medications that may be needed to control seizures. Once underlying diseases are ruled out by your veterinarian, some pets require medications such as phenobarbital, Keppra (levetiracetam) or potassium bromide, among others, to control seizures. These medications may require frequent dose adjustments and monitoring of blood levels, so it is best to have an open and honest discussion with your veterinarian about the effort and costs involved in treating your pet for seizures. Most dogs (3 out of 4) can be well-controlled and have few or no seizures while on medications. Seizures and epilepsy are rare in cats.
What to Do
- Protect the pet from injuring herself during or after the seizure. Keep her from falling from a height and especially keep away from bodies of water.
- Remove other pets from the area as some pets become aggressive after a seizure.
- Protect yourself from being bitten.
- Record the time the seizure begins and ends, and if it started with a certain body part (such as twitching of an eye).
- If the seizure or convulsion lasts over 3 minutes, cool the pet with cool water on the ears, belly and feet, and seek veterinary attention at once.
- If your pet has two or more seizures in a 24-hour period, seek veterinary attention.
- If your pet has one seizure that is less than 3 minutes and seems to recover completely, contact your veterinarian’s office for further instructions. A visit may or may not be recommended based on your pet’s medical history.
- If the pet loses consciousness and is not breathing, begin CPR.
What NOT to Do
- Do not place your hands near the pet's mouth. (They do not swallow their tongues.) You risk being bitten.
- Do not slap, throw water on, or otherwise try to startle your pet out of a seizure. The seizure will end when it ends, and you cannot affect it by slapping, yelling, or any other action.
Special instructions for toy breeds and diabetic pets on insulin
If your pet is a toy breed, such as a Yorkshire terrier or Maltese, or a diabetic, the seizure may be due to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). If the pet is able to stand, is not vomiting and acts normally, offer a small meal. If the pet is non-responsive, vomiting or actively seizing, rub some honey or pancake syrup on the gums - take care not to get bitten - and proceed immediately to your veterinarian or local emergency center. Prolonged low blood sugar can cause irreversible brain injury.