Understanding The Complexity Of Seizures

A sleeping bulldog

Seizures, which are caused by a burst of uncontrolled electrical activity between brain cells, can be scary and often lead to uncertainty for pet owners, as seizures affect a pet’s movements, behavior, senses, or state of awareness. 

To assist pet owners in better understanding these conditions in companion animals, Dr. Christine Rutter, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, offers insight on the symptoms, potential triggers, and care plan essentials in the event that a pet experiences a seizure.

The Range Of Symptoms

Because the underlying cause of seizures is not always known, Rutter says it can be difficult to predict what a seizure will look like. 

“Some seizures look like what we all imagine, a pet laying on its side, drooling and shaking, but there are many different types of seizures,” Rutter explained. “Seizures can look like fly biting, facial twitching, staring into space and not responding to their name, and several more subtle manifestations.”

Being aware of common signs, however, can be essential for owners to accurately detect a seizure and determine whether prompt veterinary attention is required.

“It is likely for pets that have a seizure to have excessive drooling or urinate and defecate on themselves or in the area where they are seizing,” Rutter said. “A change in mentation, or mental functioning, is also really common in pets that have a seizure; this can occur before, during, and after the seizure event, lasting minutes to hours. Pets may be clingy, compulsive, fearful, aggressive, unresponsive to voice interactions, or seem lost during a change in mentation.”

Potential Triggers

Determining the cause of seizures in pets often involves a collaborative effort between veterinarians and owners. Some causes, such as metabolic conditions and brain changes, may require testing to confirm the diagnosis.

“There are many reasons pets have seizures, and those that don’t have an underlying cause for their seizures are often diagnosed with epilepsy,” Rutter said. “In this case, it’s important to have a veterinarian do blood testing to rule out underlying metabolic diseases, such as low blood sugar, kidney failure, and electrolyte disturbances, among many others. 

“Some pets also should be evaluated by a neurologist and undergo advanced imaging (MRI) for a complete workup,” she said. “Your veterinarian can help decide if your pet needs to see a neurologist, but examples of cases that may need advanced workup can include pets with frequent seizures, especially violent seizures, or pets that have persistent behavior or neurologic changes.”

On the other hand, there are other triggers that can be monitored more closely by owners.

“Pets are more likely to have a seizure at night or when sleeping, and some dogs can seize when stressed or overly excited,” Rutter explained. “Toxins can also induce seizures for many reasons. Common toxins that can cause seizures include antidepressant medication, muscle relaxants, some pesticides, stimulants, workout supplements, study aids, chocolate, decongestants, recreational medications, and sugar-free products containing xylitol or birch sugar.”

Establishing Care

Given the various symptoms and triggers, having a care plan can help owners navigate the unpredictable nature of seizures to guarantee their pets are cared for throughout the episode. 

First, Rutter encourages owners to avoid restraining or moving their pet during a seizure. 

“Owners should never attempt to touch the face or mouth of a seizing animal; it is best to observe a seizing pet from a short distance and avoid touching the animal until they are acting like their normal selves,” Rutter explained. “Children should never be allowed to handle a pet that has recently seized. Some animals can be fearful or aggressive before or after a seizure, meaning that pets who normally would never bite can be a bite risk.”

Instead, owners should check that the space around a seizing animal is free from objects or hazards that can cause accidental injuries, such as toys or ledges. 

“The goal is to ensure both owners and pets aren’t harmed, so the best thing for owners to do is make sure the animal is in a safe, calm environment that prevents them from falling or becoming overstimulated,” Rutter said.

Certain seizures may require immediate veterinary intervention and medication, so Rutter advises owners to also track details about the seizure, particularly the duration, frequency, and aftereffects, to determine if veterinary care is needed sooner rather than later.

“If a pet has a seizure that lasts more than three to four minutes, has more than two seizures in a 24-hour period, or if their behavior does not return to normal within one to two hours of the seizure, the owners should carefully wrap the animal in a blanket and transport them to the nearest veterinarian or emergency veterinary facility for care,” Rutter said.

If a seizure in a pet doesn’t require immediate attention, owners can then consider making a non-emergency appointment with their veterinarian to help identify underlying causes and  address symptoms. 

By staying informed about seizures, owners can create a safe environment for their pets, minimize potential triggers, and ensure that, in the event of a seizure, their furry companions receive timely and appropriate care.

Pet Talk is a service of the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the web at vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to vmbs-editor@tamu.edu.

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