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Epilepsy in Pets: What You Need to Know

Dog laying in chair

The last thing you expect to see as your cat or dog is snuggling next to you on the couch or calmly drinking out of their water bowl is for them to go into full-body convulsions suddenly. Naturally, nobody wants to learn that their fur baby has a significant health condition. But if you take the time to educate yourself on the issue, it can make all the difference in your pet's quality of life. If your pet has epilepsy, this is no exception; knowing the signs and how to treat your dog or cat with epilepsy is vital in providing your pal with the most favorable outcome.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder in which the person or animal with the condition experiences repeated seizures. These seizures often stem from a brain abnormality, and although there can be triggers, you can't predict when or if attacks will occur.

Some pets (primarily dogs) can inherit epilepsy, usually due to genetic brain abnormalities. In contrast, others seem to show no rhyme or reason for the cause of their condition (until a vet has an opportunity to assess and diagnose them). Still, other pets can deal with epilepsy due to a brain injury or sickness in the brain, like a tumor. Seizures can also stem from other illnesses like liver disease or anemia or ingesting poison. Cats tend to have epileptic seizures more as a result of diseases or injury than heredity.

In a nutshell, a vet will determine the best course of treatment after diagnosing the cause of your pet's seizures and whether their epilepsy is genetic, triggered by an injury or illness, or is due to an unknown reason. In humans, there's a classification system for the various seizures people can experience. Pets don't share this same system, although the International Veterinary Epilepsy Task Force recently suggested a similar (albeit with different qualities from humans) way to classify seizures in pets.

Categories of Seizures and Epilepsy in Pets

Generally speaking, the task force divided seizures in pets into two main categories based on where the seizure starts in the brain. The two broad categories of seizures are:

  • Focal Seizures —Start in a particular part of the brain and manifest in one side or a single part of the body.
  • Generalized Seizures — Originate in both sides of the brain and display symptoms on both sides of the body.

The three main types of epilepsy are:

  • Idiopathic Epilepsy — Idiopathic epilepsy usually affects younger to middle-aged pets and is typically a result of a mixture of environmental factors and genetics.
  • Structural Epilepsy — This is when your pet’s seizures result from direct issues with their brain structure and any abnormalities within their brain.
  • Reactive Epilepsy — Some seizures can be reactive, resulting from specific issues like low blood sugar or liver failure.

How Does Epilepsy Affect Pets?

Some dogs or cats may experience frequent seizures, either as a single episode or occurring in clusters. Other pets with epilepsy might not have attacks very often. In some cases, seizures can develop a pattern, seemingly happening at regular intervals, while in other patients, the seizures are unpredictable and sporadic.

How epilepsy affects your pet depends on several factors, including the root cause of the seizures, the severity of the condition, the overall health of your pet, and any genetic components that might be present.

For example, if your dog has idiopathic epilepsy, they may have an average lifespan of about 9 years, compared to roughly 6 years for underlying brain diseases. Cats often experience seizures while at rest, and many present symptoms between the ages of 1 and 4.

Seizures can bring on behavioral changes, physical ticks, and other signs. They often leave your pet feeling anxious and confused, but the good news is, seizures aren’t painful despite their often violent appearance. In fact, some seizures don’t even cause convulsions or twitches, but instead, your pet might stare at the wall for a few moments. However, no matter how your pet’s seizures look or what causes them, it’s essential to ensure your home is seizure-proof if your pet has an episode when they are alone.

Can You Prevent Epilepsy?

You can’t 100% prevent epilepsy in pets, although if a breeder knows an animal has epilepsy, they shouldn’t breed them. Also, once you know the cause of your pet’s seizures, you can put certain things into practice to reduce the episodes’ occurrence.

For example, ensure you provide a safe environment for your pet so they avoid eating toxic substances or having an accident that could trigger a seizure. In addition, some seizures may be a sign of a severe condition, while others might not negatively affect your pet’s overall health. Either way, speaking with your vet and discovering the cause is the first step in trying to decrease your pet’s seizures.

Dog laying in bed

What to Do If You Think Your Pet Has Epilepsy

As worrisome as it is to witness your pet having a seizure, it’s crucial to stay calm and keep your pet safe. First, remove anything from the immediate area that could hurt your pet. Also, gently move your pet away from any dangerous situations, like the edge of the stairs or sharp objects.

As with humans, don’t put anything in your pet’s mouth, and don’t put your hand near their mouth. Many people used to think you should put something in a person’s mouth when they were having a seizure so they wouldn’t bite their tongue or choke, but this isn’t the case with people or animals.

If you’re able, make a note of how long the seizure lasts; this will be useful information for your vet later. Also, if the seizure lasts beyond a couple of minutes, ensure you keep your pet cool to reduce the risk of overheating. For example, you can turn on a fan or try and put cool water on their paws.

As soon as the episode ends, call your vet. However, if the seizure persists or your pet experiences several episodes in a row, take your pet to the vet immediately so they can try and stop the seizure.

What Will a Vet Do for My Pet’s Epilepsy?

Your veterinarian will first assess whether the seizures are, in fact, a result of epilepsy or something else that has triggered them. First, your vet will run a series of tests, including bloodwork, MRIs, a complete physical examination, brain scans, and in some cases, a spinal tap. This is necessary detective work, so to speak, to narrow down the root cause of your pet’s seizures. Then, your vet can put together an appropriate treatment plan for your furry friend.

If the diagnosis is indeed epilepsy, your vet will most likely recommend medication and follow-up visits. You’ll likely need to give your pet medication for the duration of their lifetime, as missing doses can increase your pet’s risk of developing more severe seizures. But in many cases, once on the right medicine, your pet can live a relatively normal and happy life.

Possible Signs of Epilepsy

Depending on the type of seizure, you may witness any or several of the following signs of a seizure in your pet:

  • Involuntary muscle movements
  • Excessive salivation
  • Excessive urination or loose bowels
  • Facial twitches
  • Behavioral changes
  • Collapsing
  • Body jerks
  • Foaming at the mouth
  • Paddling the limbs
  • Loss of consciousness

Some pets may also exhibit signs before having a seizure, such as staring into space, looking for attention, or pacing. After a seizure, your pet might seem disoriented, bump into objects, or even become blind for a moment.

If you notice any of these signs or have any reason at all to be concerned for your pet, call your vet. The sooner you can get to the bottom of the issue, the better chance your pet has of being happy and healthy. For more helpful tips, check out the rest of our blog. You’ll find everything you need, from high-quality products to valuable information, so you can be the best pet parent you can be.

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