Epilepsy in Dogs: Everything You Need to Know

Epilepsy is not uncommon in dogs, but really quite unusual in cats. The single most striking feature of this condition is, of course, fitting.

Having said that, there are many other causes of fits, which must be considered in any pet presenting with such a history. Other causes include the ingestion of poisons, kidney and liver disease, infections, meningitis, encephalitis, brain tumours, congenital abnormalities and many others.

These must all be ruled out before a diagnosis of epilepsy can be arrived at. Many tests may be necessary to rule out such conditions, including MRI scanning.

However, under many circumstances, a diagnosis of epilepsy is often arrived at simply by this process of elimination.

Epilepsy In Dog Breeds

Certain breeds have a predisposition towards epilepsy: GSDs, Collies and Poodles certainly feature highly, but it can occur in any breed, Mongrels included.

The first fit can occur at any age but is often most common in young to middle-aged dogs.

So what is an epileptic fit? Well, it is usually described as the uncontrolled release of electrical discharge in the brain. Certain dogs seem to have a tendency to this condition, and an owner will begin to learn certain trigger factors, which are involved in bringing on a fit.

This could be the time of day, a loud noise, fireworks, during their sleep, or following exercise. And there are many more. Every dog seems to be different.

The Fit Record Card

These can be very helpful indeed. On the first occasion a dog presents with a fit, and before any medication is provided, ask your vet for a record card or sheet.

This is a simple table in which the owner completes details of fits as they occur, including the following parameters:

  • Date
  • Time
  • Length of fit
  • Description of symptoms
  • Length of time to return to normal

As long as this is kept up to date, it gives the vet an “at a glance” history of the pattern and severity of the fits in this particular patient.

It is the pattern of fits, which matters the most. In many cases, the fits themselves are short-lasting, and little can be done at that time

The fit is usually over before action can be taken, so without a record, it can be hard to see the journey. Medication will be aimed at improving the pattern at all stages and making the fits less frequent, and less severe. Perhaps, this could lead to preventing them completely.

Grand Mal and Petit Mal

Fits involve the patient usually lying on its side, paddling with the paws, shaking and trembling, chattering teeth, and salivating. Sometimes uncontrolled urination and defaecation occur.

A Grand Mal is a severe fit. It may lead to “Status Epilepticus” and this is the dangerous stage. It is essentially a fit which doesn’t stop until medication brings it under control. A fit which is left to go on and on can lead to severe brain damage.

Petit Mal is short fits, or perhaps even mild episodes of trembling with only some of the minor symptoms of fits. They resolve of their own accord, usually in a matter of minutes, but the pattern is all-important if we are to prevent their recurrence.

So, if this is the first fit you’ve seen, even though you don’t need the vet as an emergency measure, do take the patient to see the vet at the next convenient surgery, to assess the situation.

If in doubt, phone the vet’s practice and discuss the situation

Your Role

When a fit starts, look at the time. After 10 minutes, if the pet is still in a fit, you need to take the pet to the vet as quickly as possible.

Most fits don’t last 10 minutes, and the vet will not be necessary as an emergency measure. But if the fit is on-going after 10 minutes, phone the vet and arrange to take the pet into the vet’s practice forthwith. Calling the vet to your house is only likely to waste time.

Action in your house will be limited indeed as they may need specialist treatment.

How To Get a Fitting Dog To The Vet

Lay out a blanket by the dog. Holding its paws, roll the dog over onto the blanket. Then get two people, one on each end of the blanket, to lift the dog by all four corners of the blanket, place it in the back of the car, and go quickly but carefully to the vet’s practice.

Beware of their teeth. Dogs in a fit don’t know you, or what they’re doing, so gentle care and forgiveness is required

A dog in status epilepticus needs intravenous injections of sedatives (e.g. valium) or anaesthetics (such as pentobarbitone) to stabilise its condition. And this can take many hours, or longer on some occasions. A period of hospitalisation is highly likely.

Long-Term Medication

Having established a pattern, your vet will be able to decide if medication is necessary. Drugs involved may include Phenobarbitone, Mysoline, Epanutin (Phenytoin) and Potassium Bromide.

Phenobarbitone and Mysoline are usually first-line drugs. Epanutin is often used to support one or other of these two, to enhance their actions. Generally, one starts at low dose rates and builds up whilst monitoring the pattern of fits.

Once control is achieved, then there is no need for a further dose increase, unless things later deteriorate.

Please do not attempt to purchase these online – they must be prescribed by your vet, who is by far the best person to recommend the appropriate medication for your individual pet

In the early stages of both Mysoline and Phenobarbitone, the pet is likely to be quite sedated. Increased thirst is also possible. However, the dog will adapt, and these symptoms usually improve over a week or two.

Once you start medication, do not run out of pills! This is a well-known trigger to restarting fits again.

From time to time, your vet may wish to run blood tests. These can be used to monitor blood levels of Phenobarbitone. They can also be used to monitor liver function which can be affected by longterm medication. Your vet will let you know when and how they need your assistance.