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Witnessing a beloved dog experiencing a seizure can be both heartbreaking and frightening. Many pet owners are unprepared for this event and may not know how to handle it. The most important thing to remember is to stay calm and collected. Quickly move any furniture or other objects that may cause injury to your dog out of the way and remove other dogs from the area. Occasionally, other dogs will see the seizure as a sign of weakness and attack the seizing dog. Don't try to interfere with the seizure movements or open your dogs mouth as his jaws can clamp down hard during a seizure and cause injury to you. Be as calm and soothing to your dog as possible during the seizure and immediately report the event to your veterinarian, particularly if its a new onset seizure. Once the seizure is over, its important to determine what caused the seizure to occur in the first place.
Brain disorders such as tumours; viral, bacterial or parasitic infections; strokes; head trauma to external causes such as nutritional deficiencies as well as toxins like lead, insecticides, mouldy foods and some human supplements can provoke brain changes that lead to seizures. Additionally, metabolic abnormalities such as liver or kidney disease can cause seizures, and some anaesthetic agents and medications may also trigger them in sensitive animals.
Your veterinarian will start with a history, including background on vaccinations, diet, exposure to toxins, and a possible relationship between seizures and other activities. Blood chemistry, a complete blood count and urinalysis will help systematically rule out many of the causes not originating from within the brain itself. If no disease is found and the animal is between one and five years of age, idiopathic (cause unknown) epilepsy may be diagnosed. Dogs less than one year of age, are more likely to have a congenital abnormality, while those between five to seven years of age, may have specific disorders of the brain. Once the initial consult is complete further diagnostics may include may include an MRI and cerebral spinal fluid tap.
If your dog has no prior history of seizures, its important to consider the possibility that your dog has ingested a toxin. This would be of particular concern if your dog were spending time outside before the event where he could have come into contact with a toxic substance in a trash can, pesticides, antifreeze or any of a number of other chemicals that can induce seizures. The most common cause of toxin related seizures is lead poisoning. If you have lead based paint in your house and your dog is prone to chewing pointed surfaces, this could trigger a seizure if your dog ingests high amounts of it. Some chew toys may also contain high amounts of lead. Certain indoor and household plants can cause seizures in dogs as well as some foods, such as chocolate.
Distemper is one of the most common causes of infection related seizure. This is most commonly seen in puppies who havent been vaccinated against the distemper virus. If your dog has received the distemper vaccination, this is unlikely to be the cause.
If a dog has a genetic predisposition to seizures, a simple vaccination can sometimes trigger seizure activity. Talk to your veterinarian about spacing your dogs vaccines days or weeks apart if he has a history of seizures in the past. Be sure your dog is only receiving vaccinations that are necessary to preserve his health. Some vaccinations have been associated with health problems in dogs and veterinarians are now following a revised vaccination schedules announced by the The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Canine Vaccination Task Force to reduce the amount of vaccines administered to dogs as a result. Distemper, parvo and adenovirus vaccinations are now recommended every 3 years as opposed to yearly, and AAHA acknowledges that distemper and parvo vaccines provide immunity for at least 5 years and the adenovirus vaccine for at least 7 years. In many cases you can avoid revaccination for example by having a titer test performed on your dog to gauge their immunity status, as in the case of Rabies.
Two other causes of seizure in a dog include an underactive thyroid and a low blood sugar level. An underactive thyroid or hypothyroidism is not a common cause of seizures in a dog, but it can be successfully treated with thyroid replacement therapy. Certain medications can also lower thyroid hormone levels and should be considered if your dog develops new onset seizures. Low blood sugar can trigger seizure activity, and a full workup will be needed to determine why your dogs blood sugar is low.
Most veterinarians recommend a workup to rule out a brain tumor in a dog older than five years of age that has a new onset seizure as a seizure can sometimes be the first sign of a brain tumor. Certain breeds are more predisposed to brain tumors such as Boxers and Doberman pinschers, but they can occur in any breed. Early treatment is crucial, because each consecutive seizure causes more nerve cells within the brain to fire randomly, so each seizure actually makes it more likely that another one will occur and makes management of the condition much more difficult. Dogs that have had more than 2 seizures in a 6 month period, should receive appropriate diagnostic workup and treatment as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are critical to a successful outcome.