Tips for Pet Owners: My Greyhound Has Epilepsy
Adopting a Retired Racing Greyhound With Grand Mal Seizures
An epileptic dog can live a long, full, healthy and relatively normal, active life when it's not seizing or recovering from an episode. But it is important to understand the condition—what it looks like and how to deal with it—as well as some of the financial, emotional and practical considerations. You'll want to talk about all these things as a family before you decide to bring one of these very special pets into your home on a permanent basis.
If you're thinking about adopting a Greyhound who has seizures, read on. I'll introduce you to Buster, talk a bit about canine epilepsy, talk a bit about what it's actually like to live with an epileptic hound—what you'll need to know before you adopt—and share what we've learned along the way. Here are some common questions you may have:
- What is it like when a dog has a grand mal seizure?
- What should we do to help them when it happens?
- What causes a seizure in a dog and is there any way to help prevent them?
- What medications will they have to take and what are the side effects?
- How expensive is this going to be?
Buster's Story: A Rescued Racing Greyhound
Greyhounds are a long-lived breed, often making it to 12 or 14 years or more. Buster is almost seven years old, but this guy is considered a "senior" and beginning to show his age in a little morning stiffness of the joints. It's not a big deal, but it is an extra consideration for a prospective adopter.
His Seizure History
Even on high doses of meds (more on this later), Buster's seizures are not well under control. They occur, on average, every six weeks or so, but there can be three in a single day, or he can go a couple of months with none at all. You just never know when they will happen.
How Buster Came Into My Life
The frequency of his "fits" cut short his racing career—not that he was great shakes as an athlete, being far too laidback in personality to be competitive! (Buster is more of a lover than a fighter, you might say.) More critically, his condition also led to a "bounce" back to our Greyhound rescue group after four years in a loving home. His family had a big change in their personal situation and just couldn't continue to manage his care.
Buster came to me as a "special needs" foster dog to live here until a permanent home could be found . . . six weeks later, I filled out the adoption forms.
What Is Involved When You Adopt a Dog With Seizures?
You'd better believe it—my partner and I thought long and hard before deciding to adopt Buster! Even on high doses of anti-seizure meds—both phenobarbital and potassium bromide, three times a day—his condition is not well under control.
Our home is an old farmhouse with a steep staircase and all kinds of other potential hazards. On top of the day-to-day challenges of caring for an epileptic, middle-aged, large, male Greyhound who has had very little obedience training, there were the financial considerations (both present and future costs of health care).
We also had to think about how this dog would fit in with the rest of our "pack" and how he'd mesh with our extended family, which includes two autistic children. What if he had a seizure while the kids were visiting? How would they react? We sure had a lot of questions.
Poll: Would you adopt an epileptic dog?
Could a retired racing Greyhound with seizures find a place in your family?
How Do You Know If Your Dog Has Epilepsy?
Buster's health records are incomplete and the kennel where he was bred and raced has long since closed down, so there's no way to check his health records, but as far as I know, he's been having seizures since he was about a year old (so almost six years now). We're also talking about grand mal here (quite dramatic and alarming to see).
They happen, on average, every six weeks—but that's just an average as there is no predictable schedule. There could be a couple in one day or as much as three months in between. You just never know.
A Veterinarian Describes Seizures in Pets
How to Keep Your Dog Safe During a Seizure
When a seizure is coming on, Buster gets restless and kind of clingy the way some dogs do when they sense a thunderstorm approaching long before we ever see the clouds. (You may know what I mean if your dog demonstrates that "storm sense" behavior.)
If you see an advanced warning of an oncoming seizure, you can prepare by doing the following:
- Turn off any bright lights.
- Turn off any source of loud noise (like music or TV or games).
- Gently guide your dog towards an old blanket (something easy to clean but softer than the hard floor underneath to prevent them from hurting themselves in the throes of a convulsion).
- Quietly put any other pets out of the room without stressing them out (Buster's "sister" Greyhound gets very anxious if he is at all on edge).
- Prepare to protect your seizing dog. It is normal for one dog to attack another when abnormal behavior is exhibited, even if they get along great under normal circumstances. Better safe than sorry!
A Pet-Owner Walks You Through an Episode
What Does a Seizure in a Dog Look Like?
This is what a typical seizure looks like for Buster:
- As the seizure begins, he stiffens up in the legs.
- His eyes glaze over.
- He salivates heavily.
- He falls down and loses consciousness.
- He thrashes his legs wildly.
- He clenches his jaw or gnashes his teeth.
He experiences very strong contractions in his whole body.
Make Sure Your Dog Is in a Safe Location
A grand mal seizure is pretty hard to watch. It's important to stay calm yourself and make sure your dog is not near the top of stairs or anything he or she might bang into. Although Buster is crate-trained (and retired racing Greyhounds love their crates), I prefer not to leave Buster in a crate for long without close supervision.
For one thing, one of those thrashing legs might poke out through the bars of the wire crate and get caught and hurt. It would also be challenging to get such a big dog out of a crate if he needed emergency medical attention. It's been done, but it takes two strong people, and I'd rather not put any of us through that performance!
First Aid for Dogs
How Can You Help Your Dog?
When a dog has a seizure, you may be anticipating several things. Most people have the following questions:
- How should I react?
- What happens?
- What should I do?
A Demonstration of How to React
Robert and Dawn West's Golden Retriever, Tanner, has had grand mal seizures all her life. Having a medical background, Dawn knows that it is easier not to panic when you know what to expect. They decided to record one of their dog's episodes on video (below) and share it to help other dog owners recognize and understand what's happening and learn how to stay calm and react appropriately.
The video is almost 20 minutes long, but by watching it all the way through, you can see all the stages (preictal, ictal and postictal stages, in veterinarian's terms), and you will be better equipped to recognize the signs and symptoms in your own pet.
Dawn's clear narration is extremely helpful. She tells you what you're looking at, what's going on with Tanner and what they're doing for her. It is primarily a matter of keeping calm, comforting the dog and keeping her safe from injury during the thrashing and contractions as they happen.
The other reason for choosing this video is that it shows Tanner having a very mild grand mal seizure. It gives the visual information you need in order to learn what it looks like, without being too hard for most of us to watch. An intense seizure can be horrible to see if you're not prepared, so this is kind of a gentle introduction.
What to Do After a Seizure
After a grand mal seizure, Buster is uncoordinated and weak and can't see well at all—he is blind for at least a few minutes. If he doesn't lose control of his bladder and bowels during the seizure, then he will certainly need to go out immediately afterward and will probably need some help to stand. With a 90-pound Greyhound and a house with a lot of stairs, you can see that this could be a bit of an issue!
So, we've got emergency "potty supplies" close at hand in the bedroom upstairs, as most seizures (this is common) tend to happen when a dog is resting—like at night or in the early hours of the morning.
Enzyme-based cleaners (and this brand is the best I've found) actually remove smells rather than mask them. I keep a gallon of this on hand to clean up after Buster.
Tips for Cleaning Up After Your Dog
For cleaning up after those "accidents" that very commonly happen while a dog is having a seizure or just afterward, you'll want Nature's Miracle. This is also useful if your dog's anti-seizure meds cause him or her to vomit on the carpet. Trust me, it will save you a lot of stress in a situation where you're already feeling a little bit stressed if you have this on hand!
To save money on the cleaner and to be sure you always have Nature's Miracle on hand when you need it, buy the gallon jug and then decant it into a couple of spray bottles to keep in strategic locations around the house.
What Causes Seizures in a Dog?
There are a number of different conditions that can cause a dog to have a seizure—whether it's a Greyhound or another breed. In Buster's case, it is epilepsy. Something in the brain just misfires at times, and it can be hard to know what the triggers are and if any are specific.
Is There Any Way to Help Prevent Them?
It helps to keep a record of events to try to identify any patterns. Our vet believes that Buster's attacks are triggered by stress. In his previous home, for example, he had four or five massive episodes in the three days around Christmas, and two more when his owners went back to their work routine after the holidays ended.
- Loud sounds and bright images: I have a theory that the fast-moving images and sudden loud sounds from TV shows and video games may be triggers.
- Overexertion: Extreme exercise is another possibility. As time goes by, I am seeing more evidence that tiredness or excitation may play a role in bringing on an epileptic event, at least in Buster.
- Blood sugar levels: People will often have a strong physical reaction to a dip in blood sugar levels when they've gone a long time without eating and/or expended a lot of energy without replenishing their resources with food; the same might be said for dogs.
- Cleaning products: Cleaning products with a strong smell could trigger a seizure.
- Weather: A sharp change in weather conditions (especially a sudden cold snap) could be a culprit.
It's hard to know what brings on a seizure for an epileptic dog, so we continue to keep careful records to see if there are any cause-and-effect relationships. We then try to avoid any triggers that we identify. That said, we may never know the causes since science has no firm answers on this, so we may never be able to predict with any degree of certainty when a seizure may happen.
How Are They Treated?
What about medications, costs and side effects?
The most commonly prescribed treatment for canine epilepsy is phenobarbital (sometimes with potassium bromide as well). When the maximum safe dose of "phenobarb" or "pheno" is reached, but the condition is still not being managed, the veterinarian will often add potassium bromide.
Maintain a Regular Schedule
It's important to make sure that Buster gets the anticonvulsants on a regular schedule, as you want to try to maintain a fairly stable level of these in his system.
Offer the Meds With Food
Do give the medication with food, as these meds can make your dog nauseated. (I've found it helps to give a handful of kibble about 10 minutes before Buster gets his meds.)
Common Side Effects
Besides feeling sick to the stomach and throwing up, the meds can make some dogs feel a bit sleepy and dopey. I don't find that to be the case with Buster. The side effects that I notice the most are:
- extreme hunger
- excessive thirst
- excessive urination
The other main side effect in Buster's case is ataxia or lack of coordination, especially in the back end. Buster will often stumble or drag a toe when he's walking, and sometimes a back leg will go out from under him if he moves quickly on a slippery floor. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to mind, but I do wonder how this will progress as he gets older.
Buster's Medical Regimen
Buster takes two 60 mg tablets of phenobarb and one 600 mg capsule of potassium bromide three times a day. You would think that would be quite expensive, but the cost of the anti-seizure drugs are fairly reasonable.
Bloodwork and Liver Panels
Bloodwork is the other main cost of health care for an epileptic dog. His pheno and potassium levels need to be checked every 6 or 12 months (Buster gets his done at his annual checkup). One of the reasons for checking the blood levels is to make sure the dosage is correct, as a dog's body can adjust over time and the meds become less effective. Your vet will likely recommend a liver panel as well to make sure your dog's liver function is not affected.
Some Seizures Are Not Reoccurring
When I was a kid, I had a Golden Retriever who had just one seizure and never had any problem ever again. Some dogs have just a mild condition—hardly more than a tremor or head shake—and others have seizures so rarely that it isn't necessary to take any steps to deal with them (apart from keeping the dog safe, staying calm and comforting them in the midst).
In fact, a lot of dogs that have seizures do manage to get along just fine without any special veterinary care. Much depends on the severity of the dog's seizures and on the owner's ability to handle them.
Treatment, Care and Management
My big concern is that Buster may be "over-medicated"—his lack of coordination makes it really scary when he goes downstairs. I have switched him over from the vet he was seeing with his previous owners to my own veterinarian.
My vet and I decided to run a bunch of blood tests to set a "baseline" for figuring out his treatment going forward. This included a full CBC panel, a re-test on his "trough" (low point in the day) phenobarbital and potassium bromide levels and also a "thyroid panel" to check for hypothyroidism, as hypothyroidism can be a cause of seizures in Greyhounds and other dogs.
The blood tests revealed that he's a little anemic, but that may be a result of getting poor-quality food in his previous home. His thyroid and other levels are fine, with the exception of his potassium bromide levels (which at the trough are still at the high end of the therapeutic range). We've decided to gradually reduce his potassium bromide while maintaining the phenobarb. The experts at the vet college have advised a 24-hour cold turkey period, as this medication can stay in the system quite a long time; then they suggested starting him at 75% of the previous dosage.
We found that reducing the KBr dosage has been a success so far, with much greater back-end stability and mental alertness, much less staggering and stumbling and no seizures. It's beginning to look like we've got Buster stabilized—medicated just enough to prevent seizures—but not so much that he shows the side effects.
Buster's Current Status on Seizures
Buster was free of grand mal seizures for 22 weeks. His previous record was about 12 weeks. One recent weekend, however, he had four seizures within a period of 18 hours. That's not good, but it could be worse. All four of the seizures were under one minute in length, and two of them were more like 30 seconds, plus they were spaced out by a matter of hours, so he was not in danger of overheating. (Dangerously elevated body temperature is the biggest risk, especially with "cluster" seizures.)
It was difficult to see him experience an episode after being in good form for so long, but that's just the nature of this condition. You never know when or where it will strike—you only know that it will, sooner or later. Otherwise, Buster is doing just great for a middle-aged epileptic Greyhound.
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.
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