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Signs and Symptoms of Epilepsy in Dogs

Like humans, dogs can suffer from seizures, too. Unfortunately, they’re not always obvious.

That’s because there are many different types, depending on the cause. Medical experts now believe that seizures aren’t a disease, so much as a sign of something wrong. It’s a symptom rather than a disease.

Why Do Dogs Have Seizures?

There are many things that can trigger seizures in dogs. Here are a few of the most common causes of seizures in dogs:

Common Causes of Canine Seizure

There is no single cause for canine seizures, but the following are known to be major factors:

  • Anemia
  • Brain Cancer
  • Electrolyte Imbalance
  • Encephalitis
  • High or Low Blood Sugar
  • Kidney Disease
  • Liver Disease
  • Poisoning
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic Injury to the Head

Common Dog Breeds for Epilepsy

Although, any dog can have a seizure there are genetic markers that make dog’s a higher risk for epilepsy.

Your dog’s genetics are a major contributor to their risk of having seizures. Some breeds are known to have a greater risk of idiopathic epilepsy and the seizures they cause, including:

  • Australian Shepherds
  • Beagles
  • Belgian Tervurens
  • Border Collies
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Collies
  • Dachshunds
  • German Shepherds
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Irish Setters
  • Keeshonds
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Poodles

How to Tell If Your Dog is Having a Seizure

To answer that, we first have to get a little technical. The medical term for a seizure is “ictus” – a convulsion or some type of fit, such as uncontrollable muscular activity. This happens because something’s thrown a wrench in the brain’s normal functions. An ictus goes through three phases

1. The Pre-Ictal Phase (also called “an aura”)

During this period, your dog will start acting strangely. They could suddenly:

  • Start to Cling to You
  • Hide
  • Appear Nervous
  • Become Restless
  • Whine
  • Shake
  • Salivate more than normal

This can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours. In other words, your dog already knows something bad is about to happen and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

2. The Ictal Phase

This is the actual seizure, itself, and can last anywhere from a few seconds to five minutes. One or several things can happen:

  • Absence or Psychomotor Seizures
    They start hallucinating… or so doctors think, because your dog tunes out and appears to stare off into space. They could also start barking or biting at invisible things or start chasing their tails obsessively. This is the most dangerous because it isn’t always possible to tell whether your dog is having a seizure or if your pup is just being dopey.
  • Focal or partial seizures
    Only one side of their brain is having a fit, so only one side of their body starts convulsing. It could happen on one side of their face, or it could look like a spasm on some part of their body.
  • Grand mal seizures
    Also called “generalized seizures,” both sides of the brain are going through abnormal electrical activity. As such, the entire body starts convulsing. This is the most obvious sign of a seizure and can be scary to watch. Your dog will pass out and fall on one side and shake. This is an epileptic fit. If they didn’t hit their head, weren’t poisoned, or aren’t suffering from some known medical problem, doctors will say they have “idiopathic epilepsy” – meaning they have no idea what’s causing it, so it’s probably genetic. During a grand mal seizure, your dog will start convulsing while paddling their legs like they’re swimming. Sometimes, they’ll also throw their heads back as if trying to touch their backs with their noses. Some foam at the mouth, others poop and pee. Each dog reacts slightly differently.

3. The Post-Ictal Phase

Once the seizure is over, your dog won’t recover right away. They’ll be dazed and restless. They could even suffer from temporary blindness, so expect a lot of stumbling, bumping into walls, and whatnot. Excessive drooling is also normal during this phase.

After a seizure dogs will appear disoriented and uncoordinated. Dogs may become very tired. Keeping your dog calm and relaxed is key to keeping the safe after an epileptic episode. Be patient, altered behavior and disorientation can last for an extended period of time and in some cases may last as long as 24 hours after the seizure has ended.

Caring for Your Dog During a Seizure

What do you do when your dog is having a seizure? Your instinct may be to pick up your dog or try to hold them down, but try to resist. The best thing you can do when a dog is seizing is to stand by, make sure they don’t hurt themselves, and pay attention to what’s going on. Here are a few helpful things you can do if your dog has a seizure:

Don’t Panic

Dogs are very sensitive to their owner’s moods, so if you freak out, you’ll only make them feel worse. It might help to know that even if your dog goes through a grand mal seizure and looks like they’re auditioning for the canine version of “The Exorcist,” they’re not actually in pain.

The exception is if they bite their tongues. If that happens, don’t try to stop it by sticking your hand in their mouths. They could bite you without meaning to or even knowing they’re doing it. Nor should you worry if they start foaming at the mouth. They’re not suffering from rabies – it’s just the seizure.

Keep Your Distance

They could be hallucinating, mistake you for someone unfriendly, and attack.  If your dog is having a psychomotor seizure, stay away until the seizure is over and your dog has had time to become aware of their surroundings.

Comforting German Shepherd WheelchairComfort Your Dog

A grand mal seizure needs a lot of TLC on your part, so gently hold and comfort your dog till it passes. Keep them away from sharp and hard objects so they don’t hurt themselves and try to cushion their heads. They’ll be confused upon recovery, even temporarily blinded, so keeping them away from stairs is also a good idea.

Time the Seizure

It will be challenging but try to time the seizure if you can. If the seizure lasts for two to three minutes, your dog’s going to suffer from hyperthermia (overheating). If that happens, use cold water or apply wet towels to their groin, neck, paws, and head to cool them down.

Isolate Other Pets from Seizing Dog

If you have several dogs, keep them away from the one that’s having a seizure. When in a pack, dogs are programmed to attack injured animals because that’s how their ancestors survived for goodness knows how long. Physically separate your other pets, until your dog’s seizure has ended.

Visit Your Vet

A seizure that lasts longer than five minutes can be fatal. That’s a sure sign of status epilepticus. If your dog does survive, it could suffer from permanent brain damage, so you have to get them to the vet ASAP.

A single seizure isn’t something to worry about, usually; but if your dog has several of them (called cluster seizures), that’s bad. The Veterinarian will want to know how long the seizure or seizures lasted so they can have a better idea of the problem.

Treatment for Epilepsy

Medication is usually only given in a few instances:

  • If your dog experiences cluster seizures
  • Seizures occur more than once a month
  • Your dog experiences a seizure lasting longer than three minutes

In such cases, your dog will be given an anticonvulsant (something that prevents convulsions) – usually phenobarbital or potassium bromide. If that happens, then it’s for life.

Studies show that if a dog starts on anticonvulsants then stops taking them, they run the risk of getting more severe seizures in the future. Your final job, then, is to make sure they stay on their meds for the rest of their lives. Your pooch will thank you for it.

Guest Author:

Chelsie a senior editor for When she’s not writing about dog related articles, she is busy taking care of her three adopted pups, Poppy, Lola and Molly.

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  1. Very informative article. I have a German Shepherds. I need to check out these signs and symptoms with a vet if she has it. Thanks for the informations.

    • Sandie, thank you so much for your kind words. We work with a lot of German Shepherds here at Walkin’ Pets, please call us at 888-253-0777 if we can ever help answer any of your questions.

  2. This has been so useful! It’s the only thing I can find that wasn’t just copy/pasted from petMD.

    I have a Silken Windhound who had two grand mal seizures as a puppy, it was suspected that they were from flea/tick/heartworm medication (the MDR1 gene mutation is fairly common in this breed)
    Since I got him at 4 years old, I’ve noticed that he likes to get up from being a couch potato, quickly walk around the apartment for a bit, and then stand perfectly still while staring off into space. He usually snaps out of it with a bark and then goes back to being a normal, lazy dog.
    I’m planning to monitor him for a month and then record the frequency and length of these episodes before consulting my vet, since there’s no way for me to tell if he’s epileptic, has brain damage from drug related seizures, or is just weird!

    • Hi Bailey,

      I’m so glad that this article was helpful. Monitoring seizures is an important and helpful step to diagnosis, but I would recommend working hand in hand with your Vet just to be safe. Wishing you and your puppy the best of luck!

  3. My 4 year old lab/ vizsla mix dog recently started having seizures about 1x a month. What causes this and what is recommended for the next step since out vet prescribed low dosage medication. Should we ask for a blood test? Any information will be helpful.Iys so sad to watch him go through this.

    • Hi Laurie,

      Your first step should be to talk to your Veterinarian. If you’ve been tracking the frequency and the duration of your pups seizures, share that information with them and express your concerns that medication doesn’t seem to be helping. They should be able to guide you in the right direction, whether it’s changing medication or dosage, surgery or whether you should speak to a neural specialist.

  4. This article is very helpful I have a 4 year old tea cup pomeranian a d now is having seizures do to head injury a couple years back. I am in need of a bumper hat or something every time she bumps her head it’s a seizure. Any suggestions please help me

  5. My 7 yr old chihuahua,jack,rat mix male has been acting strange. At first he was like head swaying back and forth glassy eyed it’s just like his head is he is very clingy.i watched him in the bed the other day.nothing was around nothing touching him, he was awake and all of sudden he was wanting under me like something scared him.he had been doing this for about a year come out from under the bed wanting comfort shaking whining but once I hold him tight with covers over him and pet his head and hum to him within a few minutes he is ok.i use to think a ghost was messing with him until I seen he might be hallucinating.he granddad just died is Sept from cushing’s and now I’m scared he is having seizures or about to have them or he has a tumor.

    • Hi Marie – that type of behavior certainly sounds like something you should bring to the attention of your Vet. I would recommend making an appointment soon and have your pup checked out. Behavior like you’re describing could very well be signs of an underlying medical condition.

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