How to manage a pet that is having seizures

It’s a frightening experience to witness your dog or cat having a seizure. In everyday life, pets are conscious and aware of their owners, responding to your words and actions, but during a seizure, a dog or cat may be standing up or lying on their side, staring blankly, twitching, convulsing and drooling, or making some seemingly terrifying sounds. You may feel scared and helpless, not knowing what’s happening to your pet or what you can do to ease their seeming discomfort.

In this article, we’ll explore what pet seizures are, what the symptoms are, what triggers them, how they are diagnosed and what you can do to manage your pet’s seizures.

What is a pet seizure?

A seizure in a pet is a burst of abnormal brain activity or a temporary disruption of normal brain function. It results in the loss of control of an animal’s motor function, which is why their muscles stiffen and/or twitch or they experience convulsions. Having a seizure is fairly common in dogs, but rarer in cats. Seizures can be a once-off or they can happen fairly regularly, depending on the cause.

What causes seizures in pets?

Epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures in pets. When all other causes are ruled out, your pet may be diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy. ‘Idiopathic’ refers to the nature of the condition in that it happens spontaneously with an unknown cause. Idiopathic epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures in dogs younger than eight years old, but there may be other causes of seizures such as:

  • blood abnormalities: anaemia; low blood sugar; stroke; poor blood circulation in the brain; high or low blood pressure
  • head trauma
  • calcium deficiency
  • infectious disease
  • kidney or liver disease
  • brain tumour
  • poisoning/ingesting toxins

Most dog seizure conditions have genetic causes, while in cats, seizures are more commonly caused by disease, tumours, or traumatic head injury. Cat diseases that can cause seizures include feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline leukaemia virus (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), toxoplasmosis, and cryptococcus. Cats can also experience seizures when they’ve ingested toxins – such as pesticides or being given tick and flea medication that’s indicated for dogs – or due to metabolic disorders like diabetes.

What are the symptoms of pet seizures?

There may be different symptoms with different seizures, as no two experiences will be the same. Pets having a seizure may include some or most of the following signs and symptoms:

  • trembling, convulsing
  • standing motionless
  • running in circles
  • falling down
  • stiff legs/legs sticking straight out
  • paddling of limbs
  • staring/glazed look
  • drooling
  • persistent/rhythmic barking
  • loud vocalisation in cats
  • unprompted aggression
  • losing bowel control

What can trigger a seizure?

Seizures can be triggered by conditions that change the pet’s brain activity. From a drop in blood pressure or blood sugar, to the effect of liver and kidney function on the brain, to a pet’s excitement, reaction to feeding time, or falling asleep – there are many situations that may trigger a seizure.

Seizures caused by poisoning or an acute condition may be a once-off, while epileptic seizures can occur regularly, but with no warning signs.

Are seizures painful for pets?

Pet seizures are generally not painful for pets, even though it may look or sound like it. Seizures may be potentially harmful if they cause the pet to fall down a flight of stairs, run into something, or knock something over that can cause injury, but the seizure itself is not painful. Your pet may get confused or panic, but rest assured that they are not in pain.

What to do during a seizure

As a pet owner, you may want to do everything you can to prevent your pet’s discomfort during a seizure, but we recommend the following:

  • remain calm
  • keep your hands and face away from your pet’s mouth – they may bite
  • sit near your pet, but don’t try to touch or comfort them – they may be confused or panicked when they ‘come to’ and accidentally bite you
  • speak in a low, calm tone if you need to offer comfort
  • don’t worry about your pet swallowing their tongue – this won’t happen
  • do not touch your pet unless this is required to move them away from stairs or any objects with which they might injure themselves
  • time the seizure – this will give the vet important information with which to diagnose or monitor your pet’s condition
  • film the seizure – it may be difficult to re-experience, but filming your pet’s condition during the seizure will once again offer the vet critical information that will help with a diagnosis or monitoring your pet’s condition

If your pet has not yet been diagnosed with epilepsy or you have not seen the vet regarding their condition, it’s time for a veterinary appointment. Your pet’s seizure may last a few minutes, after which they will need some time for recovery. If they experience a seizure cluster, one seizure will follow another with a short recovery period in between. They may appear confused or exhausted afterwards. Once they have recovered enough to be transported, make an appointment with the vet for a thorough examination.

How are pet seizures diagnosed?

It is vital that you give the veterinarian as much information as possible about your pet’s seizure/s as well as their history, diet and lifestyle leading up to their first seizure. The vet may ask questions such as:

  • When did your pet experience their first seizure?
  • How long did it last?
  • Do the seizures occur frequently?
  • Have you noticed a pattern in the seizures, such as they occur only when your pet is excited, or after a meal, etc.?
  • Is your pet’s parasite medication up to date?
  • Do you think your pet has ingested something toxic (such as a poisoned rodent, rotten food, another animal’s faeces, etc.)?
  • Has your pet shown any other signs of illness or poorliness?

The vet will perform a physical examination of your pet and may do a full panel of blood tests to rule out any other possible illnesses that may be causing the seizures. X-rays and other imaging tests may be necessary, depending on each individual case.

How are pet seizures treated?

Treatment options will depend on the diagnosis reached. In the case of idiopathic epilepsy – the most commonly diagnosed cause of seizures in pets – treatment will focus on the underlying condition and reducing the risk of triggering seizures as well as reducing their severity. It is vital to follow the vet’s instructions for medicating and treating your pet. Any sudden changes to medication may worsen your pet’s condition or trigger more severe seizures.

Keep the vet up to date with your pet’s condition and record their symptoms and any information relating to their illness/seizures that would be relevant at your next visit to the vet.

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