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
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.
- What is epilepsy? When dogs have repeated seizures for which there is no other medical cause, the diagnosis is epilepsy.
- What causes a seizure? According to Dr. Dennis O’Brien, “Seizures are caused by an electrical storm in the brain.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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:
- Belgian Sheepdog
- Belgian Teruvren
- Bernese Mountain dog
- English Springer Spaniel
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Miniature wirehaired dachshund
Additionally, according to Dr. Olby, these breeds have a predisposition to epilepsy:
- Border collie
- Cocker spaniel
- 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