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December 10, 2016
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Pets with seizures

By Joseph A. D’Abbraccio, D.V.M.

Seizures in any creature can be very frightening for bystanders. A seizure is any degree of involuntary muscle and nerve activity. Seizure activity is organized in three categories: generalized, partial and psychomotor seizures. Generalized is the most common type of seizure in animals, where the entire body is typically ridged and can even have episodes of rapid relaxation and rigidity, called tonic clonic motion. A partial seizure is typically isolated to a single portion of the body such as the face; however, these can then progress to generalized seizures. Psychomotor seizures are the most challenging type to differentiate as they present as abnormal behaviors such as growling, howling, snapping, or circling.

Seizures can develop in dogs, cats, birds, horses and even in pocket pets. If you become concerned that your pet may be having seizures, it is strongly encouraged that you follow up with your family veterinarian. It is my strongest recommendation that if you note your pet exhibiting any abnormal behavior or disturbances record the event. Having a recording allows your veterinarian to better assess potential triggers and to better diagnose what classification of seizure your pet is having.

Seizures themselves can be caused by disturbances in the brain (abnormal electrical firing, tumor and/or infection) or issues outside of the brain (blood sugar abnormalities, thyroid disease, circulating metabolic toxins, or chemical toxins). If testing is completed and there are no abnormalities, then your pet’s age is brought into strong consideration. Animals that have relatively normal blood work and are less than one year old typically have an infection that is causing the seizures. In order to fully diagnose if an infection is present or not, a procedure called a cerebral spinal tap (sampling of the fluid from around the spinal cord) must be performed under general anesthesia. If a pet is between the age of one and five and again if the blood work does not indicate any abnormalities, then your pet may be diagnosed with epilepsy. If your pet is greater than five years old and has never had seizures in the past, the concern for brain tumor is much higher than any other cause. In order to properly assess for this a CT or MRI scan must be done. These tests are typically performed at larger specialty veterinary hospitals and can range from $1,500 to $3,500 respectively.

Once a diagnosis is made, treatment is not always started as the medications often have concerning side effects, and therefore veterinarians will not start them until absolutely necessary. The guidelines for when to treat seizures:

• If seizures occur once a month or more

• Seizures occur in clusters

• No way of closely observing the patient to know when they have more than one seizure per month

• German shepherd, St. Bernard, golden retriever, Irish setter, as they are more difficult to manage.

The most common seizure medication is phenobarbital, which must be given daily. The medication itself is fairly inexpensive but requires frequent blood monitoring as well as veterinary visits. Blood monitoring can cost on average $500 per year.

Seizures are not a major life-hindering disease for animals, if followed up and managed appropriately. However, if not cared for, they can become life threatening. If your pet shows any seizure-like activity, contact your family veterinarian.

If you have questions regarding your pet’s healthcare regardless to their size, shape, or species please free to contact me at

Additional resources:
The Epilepsy Genetic Research Project
Veterinary neurologists at several universities are looking for a genetic answer to epilepsy. They seek DNA samples from epileptic dogs and their close relatives, if possible.
Canine Epilepsy Network
Affiliated with the University of Missouri at Columbia Veterinary School, this site reviews canine seizure disorders, treatment, history and more.
This is a support and news group for owners of seizing dogs. The group has a substantial library of useful resources that can be viewed at their site.