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When Your Dog Has Epilepsy

Many people think that epilepsy is a rare condition in dogs, but the truth is, it's the most common neurological disorder seen in dogs. As many as 0.75% of all dogs, or about one in every 135 dogs, will be diagnosed with epilepsy. Which means that if you go to a busy dog park, there's a good chance at least one dog there will be epileptic.

Those are some pretty high numbers. Here's what you need to now about canine epilepsy.

How Do Dogs Get Epilepsy?

There's no clear answer to that question, unfortunately. Sometimes, epilepsy in dogs is genetic or inherited, sometimes it's caused by structural issues in the brain, and sometimes, there's no clear cause at all. Some dogs even develop epilepsy after a traumatic incident.

Diagnosing Epilepsy In Dogs

One of the biggest hurdles to successfully diagnosing and treating seizures in dogs is that the signs and symptoms usually seen in humans aren't the same in dogs. Add to that the fact that dogs can't talk, and that often, their behavioural changes before and after a seizure are so subtle, it can take time to recognize the symptoms of an oncoming seizure. It can also be difficult to tell that your dog has been having seizures if you aren't around when they happen, because you might not see too much change in your dog after the fact.

Veterinarians are also struggling with this, and it was only recently that they developed a system of classifying seizures. This is divided into two major categories: generalized and focal. As the names suggest, generalized seizures affect the whole brain simultaneously, while focal seizures start in one part of the brain.

When dogs are experiencing a focal seizure, they may retain some or all basic functionality, but focal seizures can also spread and become general. Here are a few more terms related to epilepsy in dogs that you might hear from your veterinarian:

  1. Automatisms – repetitive, automatic movements that may seem deliberate, like licking or chewing.
  2. Atonic seizure – the sudden loss of muscle tone for a few seconds, when not related to another type of seizure or event.
  3. Cluster seizures – a group of two more more shorter seizures during a 24 hour period.
  4. Focal seizure – a type of seizure affecting only one part of the brain, and localized in the body.
  5. Generalized seizure – a seizure that affects the whole brain.
  6. Idiopathic epilepsy – the term used when there is no identifiable cause for epilepsy. Also used to describe other conditions without an identifiable cause.
  7. Myoclonic seizure – a type of seizure where a muscle or group of muscles suddenly and briefly contract. Can be difficult to notice.
  8. Postictal period – the time after a seizure, where changes in behaviour might be noticed.
  9. Refractory epilepsy – the term for epileptic seizures happen even when the dog is receiving treatment, which implies that the treatment is no longer effective.
  10. Status epilepticus – when one or more seizures occur for longer than five minutes, without a break. This is a very serious condition.
  11. Tonic seizure– a seizure which causes the muscles to stiffen. Can last a few minutes at a time.
  12. Tonic-clonic seizure – seizures where there is first a period of tonic seizure, which is then followed by jerking movements.

As you can see from this list, while some issues relating to epilepsy might be obvious, some dog owners may miss the symptoms for some time, for instance, if they believe their dog is sleeping and "dreaming" when their legs might jerk due to a seizure.

Once you do start noticing that seizures are occurring, and not simply ordinary behaviour or a "quirk", it's important to keep a record of when seizures occur, what the visible symptoms are, and how long they last. You should also take note of any changes in behaviour before or after the event.

Your veterinarian will want to know all of this information, but they will also want to know if your dog has had any accidents or trauma, or might have been exposed to any toxins. Even prior or ongoing illnesses or chronic diseases may be a factor in diagnosing and treating your dog's epilepsy, so make sure to mention anything, no matter how unrelated you might think it is.

Treating Epilepsy in Dogs

Once your dog has been diagnosed with epilepsy, there is still the matter of treating the condition. Your veterinarian will probably start with the lowest dosages and least invasive medications first.

Medications like Phenobarbitol, Potassium bromide and Levetiracetam might be prescribed, but while most of these drugs are considered safe for use in veterinary patients, they can have different side effects in different dogs, so your veterinarian will want to monitor and follow up their efficacy while you work out the correct dosage for your dog.

If none of these types of drugs work in controlling your dog's seizures, they may be consider refractory, or drug resistant. Even then, there are stronger medications like gabapentum, as well as multi drug treatments that may be effective.

Living with a dog with epilepsy can mean adjustments in how you do things, and you may find that you have to avoid certain activities and scenarios that might trigger seizures. 30-40% of all dogs may have a type of epilepsy that is difficult to treat, and it can take a lot of work and patience to find something that works.

However, for most dogs and their families, there will be some sort of treatment, that works to control seizures to some extent, and dogs with epilepsy are still capable of being great members of your family. They're just a little different, and need a little more care.

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