Canine Epilepsy: What Can Trigger Seizures in Dogs?

Updated on August 7, 2019
DonnaCosmato profile image

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Golden retrievers are just one of the many dog breeds with a predisposition to epilepsy.
Golden retrievers are just one of the many dog breeds with a predisposition to epilepsy. | Source

Are you living with a dog with epilepsy? The worry and stress about caring for your pet's health may have exhausted you to the point that you feel unable to learn new ways to manage the epilepsy.

While epilepsy is a serious disease, there is more to life with an epileptic pet than living from one seizure to the next. Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Healthy PAWsibilities shares what she has learned about canine epilepsy from her clients.

Question 1: What is epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: When seizures happen repeatedly, over weeks or months, the condition is classified as epilepsy.

Q2: How many types of epilepsy are there?

Dr. Cathy: Epilepsy is either primary or secondary. Primary epilepsy is often called idiopathic—idiopathic means conventional medicine does not know the cause—and these dogs are completely normal in between seizures.

Secondary epilepsy is also called acquired or symptomatic. Acquired epilepsy is something that develops due to an exposure or life event, such as distemper infection, head trauma or brain tumor; these dogs are not normal in between seizures.

Q3: Which dog breeds are predisposed to epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: There is a long list of breeds predisposed to epilepsy. However, just because your dog's breed is on the list, it does not mean he will have seizures. Additionally, if your dog breed is not on the list, it does not mean your dog will not have seizures. The AKC Group of each breed organizes the table below of dogs with a predisposition for epilepsy.

Breeds Predisposed to Epilepsy by AKC Classification

Herding Group
Hound Group
Non-sporting Group
Sporting Group
Terrier Group
Working Group
Australian Shepherd
Finnish Spitz
Cocker Spaniel
Jack Russell Terrier/Parson Russell Terrier
Bernese Mountain Dog
Belgian Shepherd/Tervuren
Golden Retriever
Wire-haired Fox Terrier
Border Collie
Irish Wolfhound
Standard Poodle
Irish Setter
St. Bernard
Labrador Retriever
German Shepherd Dog
Shetland Sheepdog
These breeds are known to have a high predisposition to epilepsy, but that doesn't necessarily mean that every dog breed listed here will have epilepsy.

Q4: Why does my dog have seizures?

Dr. Cathy: A seizure is an electrical imbalance in the brain. The brain is supposed to have a balance between Go (excitatory) and No-Go (inhibitory) functions. When a seizure starts, the No-Go isn’t strong enough to prevent the Go from happening. The question is: why is the Go signal so strong and the No-Go signal too weak to prevent the seizure as happens in normal dogs.

Q5: What happens during a seizure?

Dr. Cathy: Usually, in one super tiny little part of the brain, the Go signal overwhelms the local No-Go and the seizure starts. If the rest of the brain is a touch weak, the Go signal will overwhelm the whole brain and cause a full-blown seizure. Some seizures are just tremors; other seizures overwhelm the whole body and lead to falling down, drooling, screaming, pooping, peeing, vomiting, and the appearance of drunkenness.

Your dog's disability need not limit his ability to enjoy life.
Your dog's disability need not limit his ability to enjoy life. | Source

Q6: Are there ways to prevent my dog's seizures?

Dr. Cathy: This is the million-dollar question. Anyone whose dog has seizures wants to know how to prevent the seizures. However, what those people want is to know how to reverse time and undo the one thing that caused their dogs to be epileptic.

In hindsight, they will wish they had fed better food (real food), done less vaccinating, applied less chemicals, used less chemicals to clean in their houses, avoided toxic lawn chemicals and so on. So, for those whose dogs haven’t had seizures, who might possibly read this, those are the things that can help prevent seizures.

Q7: How can I keep my dog safe during a seizure?

Dr. Cathy: The caveat question is how to keep yourself safe during the seizure. It’s normal parenting instinct to want to jump in and help. You have to be careful not to get hurt while wanting to help your dog. Watch the mouth and head. If you can hold your dog without being bitten, then hold your dog. Your goal is to keep him from hitting his head on the floor. Some dogs rush head long into walls or down stairs, so preventing him from getting hurt is your goal.

Q8: What causes epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: Secondary, or acquired, epilepsy can have many causes. These causes can range from heavy metal overload (like lead or arsenic), to bacterial infection, to tick borne disease, to brain tumor; in other words, anything that can imbalance the workings of the brain.

Primary epilepsy is believed to be a genetic imbalance in how the brain functions or was put together. The truth is, in primary epilepsy, the cause is not known. Therefore, prescribing medication is a guesstimate because if the cause if not known, how the brain is malfunctioning is not known, thus we can’t know which medication may reverse the problem.

Irish setters also have a predisposition for epilepsy.
Irish setters also have a predisposition for epilepsy. | Source

Q9: How common is epilepsy in canines?

Dr. Cathy: Statistically one to three percent dogs have seizures. This means 1 to 3 dogs out of 100 have seizures. Most dog owners know 100 people with dogs and of those, 1 or 2 will have epilepsy. It’s fairly common.

Q10: What are the symptoms of epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: In between seizures, there are no visible signs of an epileptic. Before an epileptic has a seizure, there may be a prodrome stage or an aura that identifies a seizure is coming.

The prodrome stage is a time of abnormal behavior that comes before a seizure. An aura is where the seizure patient may see or hear or smell things. This is a hard phase to identify in dogs because it is hard for dogs to say they smell something funny.

Some seizures look like fly biting where the dog snaps in the air at seemingly nothing. Some seizures are just tremors and drooling. The stereotypical seizure is where the dog lays on his side, urinates and defecates on himself, and even screams as if in agony.

Q11: How is epilepsy diagnosed?

Dr. Cathy: It’s basically a diagnosis by exclusion. If the seizure never repeats, it’s a one-time event. Regardless if there has been one seizure or more, basic tests include bloodwork, urinalysis, tests for tick diseases, and sometimes even an MRI. If there is no obvious reason for the seizures, it is called epilepsy.

How to Calm an Epileptic Dog

Common Medications Used to Treat Canine Epilepsy

First Line Medications
Second Line Medications
Potassium bromide
Valproic acid
Sodium bromide

Q12: What are the Western medicine treatments for epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: Standard medications include phenobarbital, and potassium or sodium bromide are the most common treatments for epilepsy.

If these medicines or some combination of them doesn't control the seizures, then there are second line medications that can sometimes help control seizures.

These medications include: levetiracetam, valproic acid, zonisamide, gabapentin, topiramate, and now even pregabalin. TABLE

Q13: What are the alternative medicine treatment options?

Dr. Cathy: Anything that makes the body work better helps combat epilepsy. Alternative treatment starts with detoxification. Because toxic exposure (think lead, fungi, organophosphates, parasites, nutritional imbalance), can cause seizures, detoxification is an initial first step.

Detoxification comes in many forms, including herbal therapy. Additionally, getting to the root of the seizures helps determine alternative treatments.

Sometimes, a full and complete life history makes homeopathy the answer to seizures. Sometimes, the right Chinese herbal formula can stop seizures. The beauty of alternative medicine is each patient is treated as an individual, rather than following a formula that is not one size fits all. The reasons for seizures are individual, thus should be the treatment be individualized.

Q14: What will living with an epileptic dog be like?

Dr. Cathy: Most of the time, your life will be normal. If your dog has a break through seizure, you may have to give oral or rectal valium, or the seizures may be mild and easy to manage so you only have to hold your dog through the seizures.

Q15: How will I need to manage my dog's epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: Medication (be it conventional or alternative), good food, avoidance of chemicals and vaccines, and life as usual.

Q15: What roles do diet and exercise play in epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: The crazy thing is many seizures start in the intestines. The neurotransmitters (chemicals that talk between the nerves) that make the intestines work are the same as the ones in the brain.

For many dogs, controlling the imbalance in the intestines prevents the chemical imbalance from spreading to their brains.

Exercise is always a key to good health because the entire body works better when it moves. Exercise helps reduce weight and sometimes, the toxins stored in the body’s fat may be the cause of seizures. Exercise also makes the intestines work better, which, in turn, may make the brain work better by not having seizures.

Q16: What else do pet parents need to know about epilepsy?

Dr. Cathy: Most owners of seizure dogs wrack their brains trying to identify a cause, so they scrutinize anything that may have changed just before the seizures started. For some patients, it might have been a rabies vaccine. The sad side of things is 30-40% of seizure patients never get control of their seizures with medication, no matter how much medication is given or how many different types. The thing to figure out is how to make the seizures less of an issue, so they have less impact.

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This veterinary medical information is based on information provided during a telephone interview with a professional, qualified, retired veterinarian. However, it is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. Always seek your veterinarian’s advice about your pet’s health.

While this information is periodically researched and updated (under the guidance of veterinary input) in the attempt to be timely and factual, no guarantee is given the information is correct, complete, and/or up-to-date.

Recommendations as to therapeutics, diagnostics and best standards of practice in the veterinary industry and/or opinions between professionals may differ or change as technologies and information changes. You should not use this article as your sole source of information on any matter of veterinary health or attempt to self-diagnose or treat your pets as the information herein may not be appropriate for your pet. The safest option for you and your pet is to rely on the advice of your veterinarian to diagnose and recommend the best treatment options.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Donna Cosmato

    Share your experiences with epileptic dogs.

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      • profile image

        Shirley Owens 

        3 years ago

        My Italian Greyhound starting having seizures when she was a young puppy. At first it scared me. I learned over time It has to do with her getting too hot. I learned to pick her up and bath her face with a little water to cool her down. I talk to her and hold her while walking with her until she comes out of it. She has been such comfort to me and I love her so much. She is 14 years old and acts like a puppy. My Vet told me she had a heart like a "puppy".

      • DonnaCosmato profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Cosmato 

        5 years ago from USA

        I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your precious pet, Irc7815. I'm glad it was helpful to you.

      • lrc7815 profile image

        Linda Crist 

        5 years ago from Central Virginia

        I recently lost my 11 year old Italian Greyhound to cancer but she was also a seizure dog. Most of her seizures followed vaccines (immediately) so we never really treated her as epileptic. Seizures are very common to IG's so I was thrilled to find your hub on the subject. It's very clear and concise, full of good information, and well organized. Thank you.

      • Hezekiah profile image


        5 years ago from Japan

        Intersting topic. It may not be disease but the dog we used to have used to get fits from eating worming tablets.

      • DonnaCosmato profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Cosmato 

        5 years ago from USA

        Hi Melissa, best wishes for your new border collie puppy for a long, healthy life. I'm glad you enjoyed this hub and found it useful; thank you for commenting.

      • Melissa Knight profile image

        Melissa Knight 

        5 years ago from Murfreesboro, TN

        Thank you so much for this information! I have a border collie puppy, and it's been my fear that he will have seizures like my beloved previous border collie darling did - so this information is so helpful! We love them so much - so anything I can learn to be more informed provides comfort!

      • DonnaCosmato profile imageAUTHOR

        Donna Cosmato 

        5 years ago from USA

        Thank you for voting up and commenting on this hub, torrilynn. It is awful to see a pet suffering because it makes us feel so helpless, doesn't it?

      • torrilynn profile image


        5 years ago

        I never knew that these diseases could cause seizures in dogs. I use to have a dog and I know the pain that one must feel to see their dog have a seizure or are hurt in any type of way. thanks for the hub. voted up.


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