Witnessing a seizure in your pet can induce fear and uncertainty. You likely feel panicked, scared, or helpless, but learning more about this condition, the signs to look for, and how you can help your seizing pet may ease your anxiety—and your pet’s. 

What causes seizures in pets?

In general, seizures occur because of a dysfunction either inside the brain (i.e., intracranial) or outside the brain (i.e., extracranial). Brain disorders may include inflammation (i.e., encephalitis, Valley Fever, etc), stroke, or tumors. Other conditions, including liver disease, kidney problems, electrolyte disturbances, or toxin exposure, can also lead to seizures. When a concrete cause for the seizures is not found, this is referred to as idiopathic epilepsy. 

Determining the cause of a pet’s seizure disorder involves a series of diagnostic steps. Initially, your veterinarian will perform a physical examination, including an evaluation of your pet’s neurological function. This may involve assessing reflexes, cranial nerve function, and the way your pet walks (i.e., their gait). Next, they will perform blood and urine tests to rule out liver, kidney, or toxin involvement. These laboratory tests can also help screen for inflammation, cancer, or other abnormalities. 

What are seizure signs in dogs and cats?

When many of us think of a seizure, we picture a dog or cat flailing on the ground uncontrollably. When this type of generalized seizure occurs, pets will typically fall on their side and paddle their legs, and may also lose bowel or bladder control. While this is the most severe form of a seizure, other more subtle episodes can occur. A focal seizure may present as an erratic movement localized to one body area, such as the side of the face or one particular leg. 

Many pets experience a period of nervous behavior, called the pre-ictal phase, seconds to hours before a seizure occurs. This may manifest as restlessness, pacing, hiding, or other abnormal behavior. Disorientation, blindness, confusion, and similar behaviors are common directly after a seizure, in what is known as the post-ictal phase.

What can I do if my pet is having a seizure?

If your pet experiences a seizure, you can take measures to help keep them safe. Start by ensuring the area around your pet is secure. You may need to block stairways, move furniture, or take away items with sharp edges or corners, to minimize potential injury to your pet. Do not allow your pet access to an unfenced pool if they have ever had a seizure. If your pet has a seizure on a hard surface, you can lay a pad or blanket under their head for cushioning. Avoid holding your pet down or putting your hands near their mouth, which could harm you or your pet. 

If you can, time your pet’s seizure, and consider taking a video to show your veterinarian. Sometimes, what can look like a seizure may actually be a syncope episode (i.e., fainting), or another cardiovascular or neurological problem. If your pet experiences more than one seizure, keep track of their occurence, and how long they last. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible following your pet’s seizure, especially after their first episode.  

What else do I need to know about seizures in pets?

Veterinarians don’t typically recommend treating seizures in pets until one or more of the following criteria are met:

  • They have more than one seizure per month.
  • They have cluster seizures (i.e., more than one seizure per day, or seizures directly after one another)
  • The seizures are extremely severe or prolonged (i.e., five minutes or more).

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause, which may be determined by the diagnostic tests mentioned above. If your veterinarian cannot determine a cause, they will make a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy,  and will usually recommend treatment with anti-seizure medications. They may refer you to a veterinary neurologist for further evaluation. 

At VetMED Emergency & Specialty Care, we are proud to introduce our own board-certified veterinary neurologist, Dr. Ilyssa Meren. Dr. Meren completed her veterinary education and residency training in New York and Iowa. She previously worked all over the country as a traveling neurologist. She frequently works with patients with seizure disorders, and has a special interest in this disease due to her own childhood epilepsy syndrome (that ultimately led to her becoming a veterinary neurologist)

If you would like more information regarding seizures in pets, or wish to set up a consultation with Dr. Meren, contact our veterinary team.