Canine Epilepsy: Expert Answers to Your Frequently Asked Questions

Having a dog with canine epilepsy can cause many emotions: fear, uncertainty, and impotence are just a few. Epilepsy is an expensive disease with no cure.

While it may be possible to control the seizures with medication, owners are faced with making a hard choice: treating the disease or euthanizing their dog.

Here we discuss some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about idiopathic epilepsy, and provide answers from an expert, Dr. Karen O’Connor, VMD.

She speaks to this subject not just from her experience as a veterinarian, but from her heart. Her childhood pet, Barney, had epilepsy. She shares from the experience of living with an epileptic dog.

Canine Epilespy Is a Risk for Many Dog Breeds

English Springer Spaniels are one of several dog breeds that have heritable canine epilepsy. Ask the breeder for health information on both parents before you make your final choice of a dog.
English Springer Spaniels are one of several dog breeds that have heritable canine epilepsy. Ask the breeder for health information on both parents before you make your final choice of a dog. | Source

Help! I Don't Understand My Vet's Terminology

Putting veterinary terminology in layman terms is not easy, but it is important to help owners understand what is happening with their pet. Let's discuss some common terms you may hear your vet use and what they mean.

  • Primary (idiopathic) epilepsy: there is an unknown cause for the epilepsy but it is believed to be genetic.
  • Secondary (symptomatic) epilepsy: the cause is brain malfunction.
  • Cryptogenic or probable symptomatic epilepsy: seizures caused by brain malfunctions, unknown etiology.
  • Cluster seizures: a series of seizures occurring within a 24 hour period.
  • Status epilepticus: repeated seizures in a 24 hour time period, or episodes where the dog does not recover completely (showing signs of alertness, being able to stand and walk), seizures lasting for 30 minutes or more.

According to Dr. O'Connor, epilepsy manifests in dogs one to five years of age. In her personal experience, her English Springer Spaniel, Barney, was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was three and lived to the age of nine.

Epilepsy in Dogs: An Overview

Here are Dr. Connor's responses to some FAQs about canine epilepsy.

  1. What is epilepsy? When dogs have repeated seizures for which there is no other medical cause, the diagnosis is epilepsy.
  2. What causes a seizure? According to Dr. Dennis O’Brien, “Seizures are caused by an electrical storm in the brain.”
  3. What treatments are used? The most common treatments for epilepsy, according to Dr. O’Connor, are Phenobarbital and potassium bromide. Common side effects of both are lethargy and increased thirst and appetite. She emphasized owners should take their dogs for regular check-ups, liver function tests, and blood work, every six months when they are taking such drugs.
  4. Are there other conditions besides epilepsy that cause seizures? Yes, seizures can be caused by low blood sugar, brain diseases like tumors, and other medical issues. According to Dr. O’Connor, epilepsy is diagnosed by exclusion; the vet rules out any other condition that could be causing the seizures.
  5. How common or uncommon is epilepsy? According to Dr. O’Connor, “In my medical opinion, it is a common cause of seizures in young to middle-aged dogs.”

Are there breeds with a heritable predisposition to develop epilepsy? The answer is yes, and we will discuss that topic next as well as provide you with a comprehensive list of those breeds. We'll also discuss how owning an epileptic dog impacts families, and what to do if your dog has an epileptic seizure.

Population of Predisposed Breeds

Are there dog breeds that are predisposed to canine epilepsy?

Yes, according to a report by Dr. Natasha Olby, which was supplied to me by Dr. O'Connor.

In her paper entitled Seizure Management in Dogs, she listed the following breeds as showing proven heritable epilepsy:

  • Beagle
  • Belgian Sheepdog
  • Belgian Teruvren
  • Bernese Mountain dog
  • English Springer Spaniel
  • Golden Retriever
  • Keeshond
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Miniature wirehaired dachshund
  • Visla

Additionally, according to Dr. Olby, these breeds have a predisposition to epilepsy:

  • Border collie
  • Cocker spaniel
  • Dachshund
  • Irish setter
  • Rough coated collie
  • St. Bernard
  • Shetland sheepdog
  • Siberian husky
  • Standard poodle

Now, let's talk about quality of life for these dogs and how their epilepsy impacts the household.

How a Dog's Epilepsy Affects the Family

How will my dog’s epilepsy affect our lives?

Canine epilepsy affects families on many levels. Financially, it is an expensive disease as a full neurologic work up for diagnostic purposes can cost as much as $1,000. This does not take into account long term drug therapy, veterinary bills, and other associated costs. Pet health insurance may help but will not cover all the expenses.

How will a seizure affect our family?

Emotionally, it is traumatic. Seizures can be scary for owners because they feel powerless to help their pet. The tension of not knowing when or where a seizure will manifest may limit activities. According to Ultimate Protection for Epileptic Dogs, “The median number of years a dog lived with epilepsy (from onset until death/euthanasia) is 2.3 years." This report also documents the immense impact of epilepsy on families.

How can I make my pet more comfortable?

A major side effect of antiepileptic drugs (AED) is increased appetite. Keeping dogs on a strictly controlled diet (as prescribed by a vet) and exercising them regularly helps to maintain a healthy weight. Obesity causes other health conditions so it is important to protect an epileptic dog from becoming overweight.

The toughest question: will I have to euthanize my dog?

Is canine epilepsy a death sentence for your pet, or is there hope? In the following section, Dr. Karen O'Connor shares from her heart about her personal experience with her dog Barney, an epileptic English Springer Spaniel. We'll also offer commonsense ways for you to be proactive in working with your veterinarian to control and manage your dog's epilepsy.

Emergency! My Dog Is Having a Seizure

“Having been there,” Dr. O’Connor says, “when your pet has a seizure, take a deep breath and do not panic. While it may seem like the seizure lasts for a long time, most seizures are over quickly. It is important to just let the dog have the seizure and do not interfere. Do not put your hand in the dog’s mouth! He will not swallow his tongue, and since he is unconscious and moving involuntarily, you could get hurt.”

Walk him outside for some fresh air and to relieve his bladder when the seizure is over and he is oriented and stable. Observe the dog as he comes out of the seizure. Most dogs should recover in approximately 15 to 30 minutes to a day or so. While it is uncommon, if the dog has status epilepticus (repeated seizures with no recovery,) he should be taken to the vet immediately for evaluation.

Will I Have to Euthanize My Pet?

“There is no cure for epilepsy,” Dr. O’Connor said, "And furthermore, treatment itself is not benign. One has to weigh the risks associated with the benefits and make an informed decision about treatment.”

While the ultimate decision about euthanasia is up to each individual owner, the attending veterinarian is a good source of information and support to help people make informed decisions about their pet’s health. He or she can help evaluate your pet's quality of life and provide advice on end-of-life scenarios.

What Does My Vet Need From Me?

Use these real-life tips from Dr. O’Connor to become proactive in your dog’s epilepsy treatment regimen.

1. Keep a journal and document seizures.

2. Record as much information as possible for your vet: time and duration of seizures, how quickly the dog recovered and acted normally, did the dog lose bowel control, how frequently the seizures are occurring, what happens during the seizures, and so forth.

3. Give any prescribed medicine as directed by the vet.

4. Do not change the dose or stop the medicine without consulting your vet.

While a diagnosis of canine epilepsy is serious, the good news is there are effective medicines for treatment.

Many dogs like Dr. O'Connor's Barney enjoy a happy high quality life and outlive the statistics for survival.

The best action is for owners to become educated about their pet’s epilepsy; knowledge, according to Dr. O’Connor, is power.

The information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to treat or diagnose any illness.

Individuals should consult their veterinarian for professional advice about dogs with epilepsy.

  • For more information and resources links about canine epilepsy, visit Canine Epilepsy.

References and Resource Material

Telephone interview, Dr. Karen O'Connor, VMD, President and Chief of Staff, Coastal Georgia Veterinary Care, Inc., 10/05/2010

Canine Epilepsy, Understanding Your Pet’s Epilepsy, Dennis O’Brien, DVM, PhD, Diplomate, ACVIM, Specialty of Neurology, University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine, 04/19/2002, accessed 10/06/2010

Consultant on Call, Seizure Management in Dogs, Natasha Olby, Vet MB, Diplomate ACVIM (Neurology), North Carolina State University, June 2006, accessed 10/06/2010

Clinician’s Brief, Ultimate Protection for Epileptic Dogs, 11/2007, accessed 10/06/2010

More by this Author

Share Your Experiences With Canine Epilepsy 23 comments

lrc7815 profile image

lrc7815 2 years ago from Central Virginia

Another great hub on seizures. Voted up!

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 3 years ago from USA Author

Thanks dogfond! The more of these interviews I do with Dr. Kathy, the more I realize how many diseases we connect with humans are also contracted by our canine friends. Thanks for reading and commenting on this article about dog epilepsy.

dogfond 3 years ago

Sounds scary! I never thought dogs can also develop epilepsy. Learned a lot from your hub.

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 3 years ago from USA Author

Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information about your pet KellyGo5030! I think it's wonderful that your fur baby is coping so well with this health issue. Best to you!

KellyG05030 profile image

KellyG05030 3 years ago from New England

Hello - I just thought I would share something I've noticed with our Siberian Husky. He was diagnosed with canine epilepsy 5 years ago; he's going to be 9 in a couple of months. His seizures last only a couple minutes, and he is usually recovered from them very quickly. He was in worse shape on the meds than he was with the seizures, so we elected to not medicate him. He gets fidgety prior to having a seizure and paces quite a bit, reminding me of an epileptic person who has an aura prior to seizing. In documenting his seizures, I found it interesting that his seem to be affected by quick elevations/decreases in the barometric pressure. Winter is always the roughest time for him as he can have up to 1 seizure per week (not much when compared with what some other poor dogs/owners go through). Throughout the non-winter months, he can go for a month or more without having any seizure activity. We have a little Bichon, too, who does not have any issues with seizures. If we're not in the room and the Big Guy starts seizing, the little one will run and look for someone to bring back for him. It's rather sweet that they look out for each other!

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for sharing your feedback Dr. Mark!

DrMark1961 profile image

DrMark1961 4 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

It is possible to control seizures without medication. There are other alternatives.

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Oh, I'm sorry LadyLyell, I sure did misunderstand you! Please accept my apologies, and you are does seem like the experts would be able to develop a similar medicine for canines.

Euthanasia is really a tough subject and I'm not sure that there is a right or wrong answer as it is such an intensely personal decision. Thanks again for sharing your opinions as I value your input so much:)

LadyLyell profile image

LadyLyell 4 years ago from George, South Africa

Donna, I should have been clearer in my comment. I would not have thought the same medication would be suitable for pets but rather I was thinking how good it would be that a suitable medication be available.

I am divided on the right decision on euthanizing in such a case.

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Hi moonlake...thank you for sharing your experiences with an epileptic dog. How sad for your daughter to be in that awkward position of trying to decide what is best for everyone. It is never an easy decision to euthanize a pet and having children involved in the equation just makes it that much tougher. I'm sure from the tone of your comment that she will make the best choice when she needs to.

moonlake profile image

moonlake 4 years ago from America

My daughter has a Gordon Setter he has seizures. It's terrible and a terrible thing to go through. He always wets all over everything and himself when he's having one. He's a danger when he has one. He will growl and look like he's going to attack. This is a gentle kind dog. After he has a seizure he gets real wobbly and has a hard time walking. It takes him a longer time each time he has a large seizer to come out of it, now she is noticing small seizers with him. By the time he is done, he has messed up the house, she has to wash and clean whatever he was on and she has to take him to the groomer to get cleaned up. She has thought many times about putting him down but the kids love him. Right now the kids need this security of their dog. At this point all she can do is keep taking him to the vet, until enough is enough. Luckily he only has one to three a year.

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for your ongoing support of my hubs, LadyLyell. It's always so uplifting to read your comments; it just makes my day.

While I'm not a vet, my guess is that because the anti-seizure medications are formulated for humans, they may not be appropriate for canine use. One important thing I've learned while doing this series of articles is animals do not metabolize medications in the same way that we do. A medication that would not cause us any side effects or complications could be very dangerous to a pet. Thank you for the vote of support:)

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Oh, my! Thank you so much for that compliment, Seeker 7. I really appreciated Dr. O'Connor's willingness to help me prepare this information as it was not an easy task for her to relive the grief of losing her precious Barney.

However, her desire to empower others by providing them with this crucial information was intense, and I admired her giving spirit. Thank you for the vote up as well:)

LadyLyell profile image

LadyLyell 4 years ago from George, South Africa

Goodness me, I never heard of dogs having seizures. My mother is an epileptic but over the past few years has gone onto a new medication to control them.

I have to wonder why the same can't be done for pets?

I really learnt something new from your article.

Voted interesting!

Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland

Wow! An excellent hub! Luckily - so far- I haven't had a dog who suffered from epilepsy. But this article would be so informative and very helpful for either new or experienced dog owners whose dog develops this distressing condition.

Voted up!

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

You are most welcome, always exploring. I'm grateful to all these wonderful vets who are so willing to share their expertise and answer these common questions so we can all keep our pets just a little bit safer. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to leave me some feedback:)

always exploring profile image

always exploring 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

That would be so sad to have a dog who has seizures. Your article is very informative. I didn't know they didn't swallow their tongues. Thank you for sharing valuable info...

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Thank you, mason1966, I'm glad you thought that this was helpful information about canine epilepsy. I really appreciated your taking the time to leave me a comment:)

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for reading and leaving me some feedback, Debbie. Fortunately, I have never had a dog with seizures but it is comforting to know what to do isn't it?

mason1966 profile image

mason1966 4 years ago from Louisville, ky

Nice hub! That was very interesting and good to know knowledge.

Deborah Brooks profile image

Deborah Brooks 4 years ago from Brownsville,TX

I have never seen a dog have a are a wealth of information....I voted up and awesome...debbie

DonnaCosmato profile image

DonnaCosmato 4 years ago from USA Author

Hi Sherry, and thanks for sharing that tip as Dr. O'Connor did not touch on that subject. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this and took the time to leave me some feedback about your experience with canine epilepsy.

Sherry Hewins profile image

Sherry Hewins 4 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

A seizure in a dog is certainly very scary. It freaks other dogs out too. I have seen other dogs attack a seizing dog, so you may need to provide protection from that as well.

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