Epilepsy in dogs: causes, treatments and life expectancy

Epilepsy is a brain function disorder characterized by the occurrence of generalized or partial seizures.

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Definition of canine epilepsy

Epilepsy is a brain function disorder characterized by the occurrence of generalized or partial convulsive seizures (without loss of consciousness). Between these attacks, the dog's condition is completely normal.

There are actually 3 forms of epilepsy among:

  • structural epilepsy, also called intracranial epilepsy and caused by an abnormality in the structure of the brain,
  • reactive or extracranial epilepsy, due to a blood disorder that affects brain function,
  • essential epilepsy, which will be discussed later in this article and in which the animal's brain has a normal structure but does not function normally. This form of epilepsy is the most common in dogs and affects up to 5% of the canine population.

In a dog with essential epilepsy, the age of onset of the first seizures is generally between 6 months and 5 years old, although this age of onset can vary significantly depending on the breed.

Are there breeds of dogs predisposed to epilepsy?

Yes! Breeds prone to epilepsy are:

  • the Beagle,
  • the German Shepherd,
  • the Belgian Shepherd,
  • the Border Collie,
  • the Boxer,
  • the Cocker Spaniel
  • the Collie,
  • the Irish Setter,
  • the Labrador Retriever,
  • the Poodle,
  • the Saint Bernard,
  • the Husky,
  • the Welsh Corgi,
  • the Fox Terrier.

Crises in 3 phases

Generalized seizures generally break down into 3 phases:

Before the epileptic seizure, the prodrome

This phase can be observed in the hours or even days preceding the attack. These are the warning signs of the crisis. They are usually manifested by behavioral changes such as:

  • the occurrence of greater nervousness in dogs,
  • the dog's need to isolate itself, to hide,
  • the search for the presence of his master.

Behavioral changes can vary depending on the animal and be so discreet that they can sometimes go completely unnoticed by the owner of the animal.

During the crisis, the stroke phase or convulsive phase

During the actual convulsive seizure, also sometimes called a “grand mal” seizure, the dog will:

  • fall to the ground and lose consciousness,
  • start salivating profusely (ptyalism),
  • have limbs that stiffen or "pedal" ,
  • clicking jaws and sometimes emitting small cries,
  • urinating and/or defecating involuntarily,
  • start shaking all over.

This type of generalized seizure can be very overwhelming for the pet owner when faced with it for the first time.

This phase usually lasts between 1 and 5 minutes. It is when it continues beyond 5 minutes that it can endanger the life of the animal.

After the epileptic seizure, the post-ictal phase

The post-ictal phase directly follows the seizure in the strict sense. It can last from a few minutes to a few hours and corresponds to the dog's recovery phase.

It may be characterized by:

  • temporary vision loss,
  • a confused animal,
  • a staggering gait,
  • an intense feeling of fatigue,
  • increased hunger or thirst.

When do seizures happen?

The essence of epileptic seizures is to be unpredictable. They are triggered randomly although they are more often observed in a sleeping or resting animal. Seizure frequency also varies between dogs and response to treatment.

Certain factors such as stress, fatigue or heat can also contribute to the onset of an attack.

What do partial seizures look like?

In cases of essential epilepsy, the dog can also suffer from so-called partial seizures without loss of consciousness.

There are 2 types of partial seizures:

  • motor-dominant seizures where the dog may experience tremors or pedaling movements limited to a single limb,
  • psychologically dominant crises in which the dog presents behavioral problems such as aggression, fear or hallucinations

Does the dog suffer during the epileptic seizure?

Probably not! But, if the attacks themselves are not painful for the dog, they are still the cause of great fatigue for the animal and aches that can persist for several days after the attack. The more intense and/or close together the crises, the longer this recovery time can be.

Diagnosis of epilepsy

The veterinarian who suspects essential epilepsy in a dog can carry out various examinations such as:

  • blood tests,
  • a puncture of cerebrospinal fluid,
  • a brain scan.

If the results of these exams do not show any brain or blood abnormalities then the veterinarian can make a diagnosis of essential epilepsy. This is indeed a diagnosis of exclusion, when all other possible causes of seizures have been ruled out.

The treatment of epilepsy in dogs

Essential epilepsy cannot be cured, but the intensity, duration, frequency of seizures and recovery time between seizures can be reduced with antiepileptic drugs that must be administered for life.The goal of the treatment is to return an almost normal life to the animal and its owner by controlling the seizures.

Treatment must also be implemented as soon as possible after the diagnosis of the disease because the greater the number and frequency of seizures before the implementation of treatment, the greater the probability that the dog will not not responding well is high.

The drugs used to treat primary epilepsy contain molecules with sedative properties: gabapentin, levetiracetam, zonisamide These are drugs that can cause many side effects at the start of treatment such as drowsiness and in the longer term such as increased hunger, thirst, liver toxicity, muscle weakness For these reasons, the dog on antiepileptic treatment should be regularly monitored by his attending veterinarian who will carry out regular blood tests.

Several antiepileptic drugs can be combined to treat dog epilepsy. The implementation and monitoring of the treatment therefore requires the full involvement of the dog's owner, who will have to identify any side effects in his dog and carefully observe his seizures, if any. This information will be invaluable for the treating veterinarian so that he can find the right treatment and the right dosage for your dog.

This treatment can be readjusted throughout the life of the epileptic animal.

What is the life expectancy of an epileptic dog?

In an epileptic dog whose treatment reduces the intensity and frequency of seizures, his life expectancy is generally not affected by his disease.

On the other hand, the prognosis is more reserved in dogs that do not respond well to treatment and have repeated or particularly intense seizures.In the event of sudden seizures (which follow one another without a recovery phase), serious and irreversible neurological sequelae can occur, as can the death of the animal.

Is phytotherapy useful in case of epilepsy?

There are many plants with sedative properties (valerian, desmodium) that can enhance the effects of conventional treatment for epilepsy or even supplement it. But, due to the many possible drug interactions with drugs, it is however not recommended to administer them to a self-medicating dog. Instead, call a veterinarian who specializes in this matter!

Many plants can also be used to support liver function that is strained by conventional epileptic treatments: milk thistle, artichoke, turmeric Again, talk to a veterinarian!

Epileptic dog: what to do during the seizure?

If your dog is having an epileptic seizure, don't panic! Even if the crisis is impressive, keep in mind that your dog does not suffer from it!

  • Reduce all stimuli that could prolong neuronal excitation: turn off television, radio, lights, keep children away, keep silent in the room where the animal in crisis is located. Do not try to talk to the dog or call him. Keep this environment calm throughout the animal's recovery phase.
  • Secure the area so he can't hurt himself during the seizure. Move furniture that would be too close to the dog or place a cushion between the furniture and the animal so that it does not bump into each other. If the dog has a tantrum on the couch, make sure he doesn't fall.
  • Do not touch the animal during its seizure. Do not try to hold your tongue at the risk of getting bitten, contrary to popular belief, there is no risk of swallowing it.
  • Time the duration of the crisis. Beyond a convulsive activity of 5 minutes or if the seizures follow one another without a recovery phase, a veterinarian must be called immediately.
  • Film the seizure if it's one of your dog's first epileptic seizures. By showing the video to your veterinarian, he will be able to get a precise idea of the type and extent of the crisis during a subsequent consultation.

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