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Understanding Seizures in Older Dogs

11 September, 2019

When an older dog has a seizure, it’s scary, especially if they don’t have a history of them. I know from experience with my own senior dogs. However, it may give you peace of mind to know that dog seizures aren’t painful for your pooch. Of course, your dog might feel a sense of panic and confusion but during the actual seizure, they won’t be in pain. Yet, since a senior dog having seizures can be indicative of a serious issue, it’s important to let your veterinarian know what’s going on.

What is a Seizure?

Seizures are the most common neurological condition in dogs reported by pet parents. Sometimes referred to as convulsions or a fit, a seizure is an involuntary electrical disturbance in the brain. It’s typically accompanied by uncontrollable bodily movements, as well as changes in behavior or levels of consciousness. When a dog has recurrent seizures, either as single events or in clusters, it’s called epilepsy.

Dog seizures can vary dramatically, ranging from a twitch to severe convulsing and can last for a few seconds or several minutes. The most well known of the different types of dog seizures is a generalized seizure, or a grand mal seizure. This kind affects both sides of the brain. If your dog has a generalized seizure, they’ll likely lose consciousness and all four limbs will move spastically.

Another type of seizure in dogs is a focal seizure, which only affects a single area of the brain. A focal seizure will usually entail abnormal movements on one side of the body or in one limb. Focal seizures often progress into generalized seizures over time.

Psychomotor seizures are characterized by a dog behaving strangely. They’ll do something like attack an object that isn’t really there. This type of seizure is difficult to identify because dogs do strange things all of the time. However, they’ll always do the same behavior during seizures.  

Lastly, when dogs have seizures with no known cause, it’s referred to as idiopathic epilepsy. It’s thought that idiopathic epilepsy is inherited and it tends to affect dogs between the ages of six months and six years more frequently. It’s rare for epilepsy to be the underlying cause of an old dog having seizures for the first time because it’s almost always diagnosed in their younger years.  

What Happens When a Dog is Having a Seizure? 

When a dog has a seizure, depending on the type, they could have changes in mental awareness, such as looking dazed and having a tremor. Or, in cases of a grand mal seizure, dogs often fall over, get stiff and might paddle with their limbs. They can vocalize, drool and experience incontinence.

After a seizure, dogs are usually confused and disoriented. They might wander around aimlessly, experience temporary blindness, pace back and forth, engage in compulsive behavior and have increased hunger and thirst. Some pooches bounce back quickly and it’s like nothing happened, while, for others, it can take up to 24 hours for them to return to their normal selves.

What are Dog Seizure Symptoms?

Dog seizure symptoms vary pretty dramatically. Before a seizure, dogs will typically behave differently. They might seem nervous, hide or stay very close to you. They can shake, salivate or appear restless or dazed. These behavioral changes can happen right before the seizure or up to several hours prior to it. This is known as the preictal phase.

What Should You Do if Your Dog is Having a Seizure?

Here are some tips for handling a seizure in your senior dog:

  • Stay calm. As a pet parent, I know this is a tall order but try to keep focused on the situation at hand.
  • Time your dog’s seizure. This can be helpful information for your veterinarian later.
  • Contrary to popular belief, dogs and humans do not swallow their tongue during a seizure. Never stick your hand in your dog’s mouth and try to grab their tongue. There’s a chance you could inadvertently get bitten and seriously injured.
  • Keep your fur baby away from the stairs or objects that could hurt them if they fall. It’s safer if they’re on the ground during a seizure. Cushion his or her head and talk to them gently and reassuringly until they come to.
  • If a seizure lasts more than two or three minutes, a dog’s body temperature will rise and they can experience hyperthermia. This can be serious. You can try to slow down the rise in body temperature by applying cold, wet towels to their neck, paws and groin.
  • Call your vet right away and let them know what happened even if your dog seems fine afterwards.
  •  If your dog has more than one seizure in a 24-hour period or has a seizure that lasts more than a few minutes, take him or her to the veterinarian immediately.
  • It’s a good idea to keep a journal that documents their symptoms, as well as the date, time and length of any seizures to help your vet determine if there’s a pattern.

What Causes Dog Seizures?

Some causes of dog seizures include:

  • Ingesting poison
  • Anemia
  • Diabetes
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Kidney disease
  • Cushing’s Disease
  • Liver disease
  • Head injury
  • Encephalitis
  • Brain tumour
  • Stroke
  • Canine epilepsy (note that old dog seizures are rarely the result of epilepsy if they didn’t have the condition when they were younger)

How Are Seizures in an Old Dog Diagnosed and Treated?

To determine the cause of seizures in a senior dog, your veterinarian will chat with you about your pooch’s history. They’ll ask about potential exposure to poisons or any head injuries your dog could have sustained. Your vet will do a thorough exam, lab work and possibly an electrocardiogram, or ECG. If all of the tests are normal and your dog continues to have seizures, your veterinarian might recommend further testing, including a spinal fluid analysis, a CT scan or an MRI. 

Treating dog seizures starts with addressing the underlying cause. For example, if diabetes is at the root of the problem, controlling it will be the priority. For recurrent seizures, medication, such as an anticonvulsant, is often prescribed. It’s so important to follow your vet’s instructions for using medication. Never miss a dose or discontinue it on your own, as this can trigger more severe seizures in the future.

While it’s distressing when an older dog has seizures, your veterinarian will work with you to determine what’s causing them and try to help you manage them.

For more great information on caring for your senior dog, sign-up for the Dog Quality newsletter. 

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