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Epilepsy in Dogs - Idiopathic Epilepsy Treatments and Symptoms

In today's blog, the vets at Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital answer questions about symptoms and treatments for idiopathic epilepsy in dogs.  A seizure can be a terrifying moment for a pet owner, especially if they are unprepared, so read on to learn the signs of epilepsy in dogs and what you can do to help your canine companion. 

What is idiopathic epilepsy in dogs?

Idiopathic epilepsy is an umbrella term for a group of seizure disorders that come about from abnormal electrical activity in the brain.  A seizure disorder is idiopathic if, outside of the seizure activity, the patient has no structural brain abnormalities and otherwise ordinary brain function.  The disorder in dogs is inherited, though the exact causes remain a medical mystery.  

What are the symptoms of idiopathic epilepsy in dogs?

There are three generalized categories of seizures that come about as a result of epilepsy in dogs. Each category of seizure produces different symptoms of epilepsy in dogs.  Those three types are focal seizures, generalized seizures, and focal to generalized seizures.  The symptoms for each are listed below.

Focal Seizures

Focal Seizures affect only one-half of your dog's brain at a time and are localized in small areas within a given half of the brain. The epileptic symptoms your dog demonstrates will vary based on what section of their brain is affected.

  • abnormal electrical activity in the motor region of a dog's brain will cause unusual movements such as head shaking, repeated muscle contractions of just one limb, or rhythmic eye blinking.
  • abnormal electrical activity in a dog's autonomic nervous system will produce symptoms such as dilated pupils, vomiting, or excessive salivation.
  • Focal seizures in other areas of a dog's brain may cause uncharacteristic behaviors such as restlessness, unexplained fear, attention-seeking, or unusual anxiety.
Generalized Seizures

Generalized seizures occur on both sides of a dog's brain. Often dogs that are experiencing a generalized seizure will lose consciousness; it's not unusual for urination or defection to occur. Both sides of a dog's body will be affected in the event of a generalized seizure, rather than a single limb.  There are five broad categories for generalized seizures in dogs:

  • Tonic seizures leading to muscle contractions or stiffening that can last anywhere between a handful of seconds and several minutes. 
  • Clonic seizures leading to rapid contractions of the muscles, causing a jerking motion.
  • Tonic-Clonic seizures where the effects of a tonic seizure precede the events of a clonic seizure
  • Myoclonic seizures leading to sporadic jerks on both sides of the dog's body.
  • Atonic seizures, colloquially called 'drop attacks',  leading to the dog experiencing a sudden loss of muscle tone which in turn causes them to collapse. Typically lose consciousness a dog experiencing an atonic seizure will lose consciousness.
Focal to Generalized Seizures

Epilepsy In dogs most commonly is of this third type, where a focal seizure very quickly evolves into a generalized seizure. In many cases pet owners are unaware of the focal seizure, however, if you witness your dog having a generalized seizure it is a good idea to try and recall if there was anything strange about your dog's behavior immediately preceding the generalized seizure. Taking note of what the dog was doing before the seizure can help your vet to better diagnose your dog's condition.

Diagnosis & Treatment For Epilepsy in Dogs 

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that some dogs are born with.  As with epilepsy in humans, there is no known cure for epilepsy in dogs. 

The first step to treating epilepsy in your dog is obtaining a diagnosis. If there is a readily obvious explanation for your dog's seizure, like a traumatic injury or poison ingestion your dog will be diagnosed as having either physical epilepsy or reactive seizures.  In either case, your vet will treat the underlying condition causing the seizures in an effort to make them stop. When such explanations are lacking, a diagnosis of Idiopathic epilepsy is very common in dogs.  While there is no cure for idiopathic epilepsy, there are treatments to improve their quality of life and reduce the harmful effects of epilepsy in dogs.

Following a thorough examination, testing, and diagnosis, your vet or veterinary neurologist will prescribe the best medication for your dog based on the type of seizures your dog is experiencing as well as your dog's overall health, size, and age.  

Treatment with anti-epileptic drugs (AED) will be focused on reducing the severity and frequency of your dog's seizures without causing unacceptable side effects. This approach is successful in approximately 15-30% of dogs.

If the first drug is unsuccessful at controlling your pet's epilepsy other drugs may also be tried.

If your pet is taking medication to help control seizures, make it a practice to administer medication at the same time every day, always follow the dosing instructions provided, and never discontinue the medication without first consulting your veterinarian.

Diet For Dogs With Epilepsy

Changes in what and when your dog eats can affect how well the anti-epileptic drugs work to control epilepsy in dogs. If your dog is being treated for epilepsy it is important not to change what they eat without consulting your vet first.

Specifically, there have also been promising results in managing epilepsy in dogs with a special diet. Dogs that are switched over to a diet that is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) often see a decrease in the number and severity of their seizures. Your vet may prescribe special food to help control your dog's epilepsy.

If you want to consider creating a specialized diet to treat your dog's epilepsy, speak to your veterinarian about what's right for you and your dog.

Treatment Success

Treatment is considered successful if you notice that your dog is having notably fewer seizures than before and that they are shorter or less severe. Generally, the overall goal is to reduce the incidence of seizures to about half of their unmedicated frequency and intensity.

Side Effects of AEDs

Dogs taking AEDs can experience side effects but they will often clear-up over the course of a few weeks. Possible side effects from anti-epileptic drugs may include sleepiness, increased appetite and thirst, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, weight gain, restlessness, and other behavioral changes.

Living With a Dog With Epilepsy

Many owners of dogs with epilepsy are unsure if it is safe to leave their canine companion alone at home. Even the most dutiful pet owner will need to go out at some point, rather than worrying in absolutes, it is best to find ways to mitigate harms and risks to your dog while you are away. If your dog experiences seizures, the best thing you can do is ensure that your pet is in a safe and comfortable space so that in the event a seizure does occur while you are out, your dog will be as safe as possible. 

Has your dog been diagnosed with epilepsy or experiencing seizures? Contact our Berkeley vets now to make an appointment.

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