“He always looks for me when he feels an attack coming on. His eyes glaze over, he starts panting, and then the convulsions begin. I just sit on the floor and pet him and sweet talk him. There is nothing that I can do but let him know I'm there and that I care about him.”
This is how Sandy, a long-time friend of mine, described an epileptic seizure of her five-year-old Beagle. His seizures started when he was three and reoccur sporadically.
Sandy went on to tell me: “I've heard that sometimes a dog will have one or two seizures and never have another. But my dog has them so frequent now that I'm sure he'll always have this problem.”
A heartbreaking moment for any dog owner who has to witness their beloved pet endure a seizure. Not all seizures in dogs are as a result of epilepsy, but let's start with an examination of that particular condition.
Idiopathic Canine Epilepsy
Idiopathic epilepsy is quite a frequent occurrence in domestic animals, with frequent incidents in the German Shepherd, Poodle, and many of the smaller, more excitable breeds. However, any animal, mixed or purebred, can be born or become epileptic.
Convulsions can be as infrequent as two or three times a year or as frequent as several times a day, as mild as a slight twitching or as severe as violent running fits. Many veterinarians do not begin treating epilepsy until the seizures increase in intensity, duration, or frequency.
The epileptic animal may experience convulsions during periods of excitement when the general household tenor is a high pitch, or when subjected to stress such as travelling or being exposed to strange people or places. When such is the case, the animal may be sedated or confined to an area where a quiet, relaxed atmosphere prevails.
Modern medication, given orally on a daily basis, is generally all that is necessary to completely eliminate (or greatly limit) the severity and frequency of epileptic seizures, thus allowing the animal to live a completely normal life.
When convulsions do occur, first aid consists primarily of preventing the animal from injuring himself during mad dashes around the house, thrashing about on the floor, or other spastic behaviour.
It was an ordinary Sunday morning, like any other, explains Patricia Burnham.
I was just getting out of bed, when suddenly my Jack Russell Walther did something terrifying. He raced round and round the room as though being chased by a monster. He landed in the corner and began to convulse, struggling and flailing his legs.
His tongue was dark blue. I was convinced he was choking to death. He has always been very bad when eating bones - he breaks off large chunks and swallows them. He had appeared to have an upset stomach the day before, so I assumed in my panic that he had brought up a piece of bone which was choking him. I picked him up and dropped him onto the floor, hard, hoping to dislodge whatever was causing this. After a few seconds he stopped convulsing, and lay quietly, breathing with harsh gasps. There was some frothy saliva around his mouth. A couple of minutes later he got up and came over to me, with his ears erect and his tail in the air.
I phoned my local vet, Mark, who said it sounded like a fit of some kind. I was still convinced that the dog had been choking. Mark agreed that it was not normal in fits to see the tongue going blue, obviously a sign of oxygen starvation. I slowly recovered from the horrible experience, and for the rest of the day Walther appeared to be fine.
At midnight we were awoken by Walther gulping and convulsing. I thought he was choking again, that my supposed chunk of bone had come back up from his stomach.
My husband shook him, dropped him on the floor, turned him upside down. Nothing seemed to work, and I was convinced that Walther was going to die. Then the convulsing slowed, and once again he lay breathing in stertorous gasps.
I phoned our other vets on their emergency number, as Mark was not available. Michael said it sounded like epileptic fits, and discounted my choking theory. We agreed that in the morning I would take Walther to their surgery, 70 ks away in Gaborone, for an x-ray. Living in a small town in the south-east of Botswana, we have no large vetinary practice close by. At times such as this the isolation is a real problem. Had I been in Europe, I would have been able to take Walther for emergency treatment immediately.
I was in such fear of a recurrence that I kept the poor animal awake all night. The attacks had come from deep sleep, so I was determined that he would not rest until I had some answers. It was a long, lonely and frightening night. I sat playing Solitaire on my computer with one hand, and stroking Walther with the other. Fortunately he is an attention junkie, so he sat happily by my side enjoying this unprecedented caress-fest.
By 8.30 we were at the veterinary surgery in Gaborone. Michael asked me to leave Walther with them, as they wanted to sedate him so that they could look down his throat and take contrast x-rays of his oesophagus and stomach. I was desperately upset: I thought he would choke again and nobody would notice, because of course nobody can look out for my dogs as well as I can. However, I bravely relinquished the animal and we went off to do some business. Less than an hour later my cell-phone rang. "It's Michael here - he's just done it again, right on our x-ray table. Very obliging of him, because we can see it was an epileptic fit. And you were right, his tongue was dark, dark blue. It's unusual, but it happens. But don't worry, he was breathing fine, his airway was not obstructed.
We rushed back to the surgery to collect our dog. We mentioned something my husband had thought of: at times over the past couple of years Walther would be deeply asleep, then suddenly he would bolt from the sofa as though fired from a gun. He would spin round biting at his tail, then stop and look rather foolish. Michael said this was obviously a precursor to the full-blown epilipsy - evidence of a disturbance in brain activity.
Michael assured us that epilepsy is very common in dogs, and that Phenobarbitone would control the fits perfectly well. He warned us that Walther might have one or two more over the next 48 hours, until the medication had built up in his brain. The journey home was happier and more relaxed.
Walther did have two more fits - one very small one at 2pm on that Monday, and then a full-blown episode at midnight. Since then, nothing. Watching the third fit was easier for me, although still a very unpleasant experience. This time I understood what was happening, and I also knew that he didn't feel anything: he wasn't there.
I put some cushions around him and kept the other dogs away. After a minute or so he came out of it. It was funny to see him rushing round greeting everybody - he obviously thought he had been somewhere, which in a way he had.
I now know that epilepsy in a dog is not a major problem, and in most cases it is easily controlled with medication. Walther will continue having Phenobarbitone twice a day, probably for the rest of his life, but he is not in any way impaired by his condition.
Seizures in Dogs: Ask The Vet
“I own a female Terrier and she is almost five years old. Every three to four months she has what appears to be a seizure. My veterinarian cannot seem to help because each time she has an episode, the 20 minute drive to the doctor's office seems to be enough time for her to recover and act totally normal again by the time the vet sees her. Can you give me a reason why she has these attacks and how I can help her?”
Your dog's condition could be the result of a number of underlying problems, with of course epilepsy being at the top of the list. We are seeing more and more epilepsy in dogs and all breeds are susceptible, not just Terrier breeds. From out of nowhere these fits come about and the animals goes into severe convulsions, frightening to both the owner and the dog.
What causes these fits could range anywhere from worms to toxins; parasites to epilepsy. After regaining consciousness, the dog will wobble for five or ten minutes, and then be normal in every respect. Epileptic fits in dogs can be controlled by the same drugs that are given to people to control human epilepsy, and many dogs live long and happy lives while maintaining this condition.
The best advice is to seek out an experienced veterinarian who is confident in looking deep enough into your dog's condition to come to an accurate diagnosis, and with the right treatment to follow.
What To Do If Your Dog Is Having A Seizure / Suffering Convulsions
Convulsions are an uncommon occurrence in dogs. An episode is more upsetting and dismaying to the owner than the pet. An episode can be caused by a viral infection that has reached the brain, such as distemper, for example. Ear infections, epilepsy, certain parasitic infestations, in addition to other causal factors, can also initiate an episode of convulsions.
If a pet convulses, make sure that it is out of harm's way, and cannot become entangled in furniture or other objects, and it is not up against a wall. When a dog is out of danger, leave it alone. If, however, the animal is in a dangerous site, do not attempt to handle or move it. Cover the dog with a blanket to restrain it from injury. Be certain to keep your fingers and hands (and other portions of your anatomy) away from the dog's head: dogs often bite actively as they convulse.
Any dog that has convulsed requires veterinary attention to determine the cause. Dogs that have convulsed should never be wormed by the owner; under certain conditions, this may cause another episode. Owner-given treatments such as worming or other over-the-counter remedies can, in certain instances, even cause death to the dog that has previously convulsed.
Remember though that your pet is not in control of his actions while experiencing a convulsion, so keep your hands a safe distance from his teeth. Contact your veterinarian should the convulsion last more than a couple of minutes or seem unduly violent.
Case Study: How Ollie's Fund Could Help Thousands of Dogs Affected by Seizures
Canine epilepsy is a disorder affecting around 1% of the human population and up to 5% of dogs. It can occur in any breed, although typically some are more commonly affected than others. Epilepsy can have a huge impact on the quality of life of both the dog and owner and, for this reason, a number of epileptic dogs end up being euthanised. Ollie’s Fund has been set up to allow researchers at the Animal Health Trust to research into the cause of the illness and prevent dogs like Ollie suffering in the future.
Ollie Haggerwood was an Italian Spinone who had his first seizure in 2005, aged three. Apart from having undergone surgery for two infected toe nails a few days previously,, Ollie was a fit and healthy dog.. However, a month later Ollie had another seizure. He was convulsing, foaming at the mouth, urinating and going totally rigid. The seizure lasted only a few minutes, but for a good hour afterwards, Ollie was blind, walking into obstacles and very distraught. He didn’t even recognise his owners.
Ollie was referred to the Animal Health Trust and booked in for an MRI scan and spinal tap to diagnose the cause of his seizures. These were getting more frequent and increasing in severity, sometimes having up to nine in 24 hours, twice a week. The scan and spinal tap revealed nothing untoward, no tumours or lesions, so a diagnosis of ‘idiopathic epilepsy (also known as ‘primary epilepsy’) was made.
Canine epilepsy is characterised by repeated seizures, due to abnormal activity in the brain. When no cause for these seizures can be identified, the term idiopathic or primary epilepsy is used, and this form is believed to be a genetic condition.
Sadly, there is no cure for idiopathic canine epilepsy, even though the majority of dogs respond satisfactorily to antiepileptic medication. Ollie was put on medication but, after four months, was rushed back to the Trust a very sick dog. Neurologist Lara Matiasek took charge and discovered he had a rare side effect to his antiepileptic medication phenobarbitone, which caused him to have reduced numbers of white blood cells and platelets.
“In simple terms, the drugs given to control the epilepsy had done their job at the price of almost taking his life in return,” explained owner Shelley. “It was like we had made a deal with the devil.”
Ollie suffered numerous complications and different combinations of drugs were given in an attempt to find a formula which helped control his epilepsy without endangering his life further. The family’s life began to revolve entirely around him and they feared for his health every day. He started having ‘cluster seizures’, constantly seizuring for periods of time, which meant someone had to be with him 24 hours a day.
In 2007, things got worse. Ollie was really suffering with his seizures and Shelley knew the time had come to have him euthanased. There was no way of stopping his seizures – they came so frequently, and with such venom.
“That day I really did see he had had enough,” said Shelley. “They say you know when the time’s come to say goodbye and I believe that now. I saw it in his eyes that afternoon. It was as if he was saying, ‘It’s okay, let me go. Enough is enough.’”
As the Haggerwood’s story shows, managing and caring for an epileptic dog can be distressing and expensive and, because of this, sadly some owners end up having their pet euthanased. The implications for animal welfare in this condition may be significant if seizures are not controlled at all or animals suffer from serious drug-related side-effects.
At present, the cause of this form of canine epilepsy is still unknown, but hope is in sight. Ollie’s Fund is now successfully in place and all funds raised will go directly to the Animal Health Trust’s research into the condition.
“Ollie may be gone, but hopefully some good can come from his lost fight . Subsequently, his memory can live on through the fundraising efforts and the money raised will help scientists find what causes this dreadful disease,” said Shelley.
The Trust’s Neurology Unit has several ongoing projects to improve the understanding, treatment and, most importantly, the prevention, of epilepsy. This goal can only be achieved with the help and expertise of the specialist Canine Genetics Department at the Trust. By studying the genetics of the condition in a variety of breeds, it is anticipated that a number of different genes will be identified that play a role in the development of canine epilepsy.
For more information about the Animal Health Trust, the work they do into Canine Epilepsy and Ollie’s Fund, visit www.aht.org.uk.
Canine Epilepsy Resources: