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Epilepsy In Dogs

What Is Epilepsy in Dogs?

Epilepsy in dogs is a prevalent neurological condition characterized by recurrent seizures without a known cause. It affects approximately 0.75% of the canine population. Seizures occur due to excessive electrical activity in the brain’s cortex. While the brain of epileptic dogs appears structurally normal, it exhibits abnormal electric impulses. Diagnosis of epilepsy is made by excluding all other possible causes, a process also known as primary epilepsy or idiopathic epilepsy.

Seizures originate from a specific area of the brain known as the “seizure focus” and subsequently spread, resulting in involuntary movements and loss of consciousness. The surge in electrical activity manifests as twitching, shaking, tremors, and convulsions during a seizure episode.


There are various types of seizures that can occur in dogs, and it’s crucial to distinguish them from fainting spells, which are cardiovascular events. Seizures are typically divided into three phases:

  • Aura: This phase precedes the seizure and may manifest as anxiety, fear, or attention-seeking behavior in the dog. Pet parents might find it challenging to identify this phase.
  • Ictal: This phase represents the actual seizure and usually lasts 1-2 minutes. Immediate medical attention is necessary if the seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes.
  • Post-ictal: Following the seizure, the dog experiences disorientation, which is characteristic of seizures. This phase can last from a few minutes to several hours. Unlike fainting spells, animals recover quickly without post-episode disorientation.

Seizures vary in appearance, and identifying the type can assist veterinarians. The main categories include:

  • Generalized (Grand Mal) Seizures: This is the most common type in dogs. The dog collapses, becomes unconscious, experiences stiff limbs, convulsions, urination or defecation, breath holding, and/or drooling. While all epileptic seizures are grand mal, not all grand mal seizures are indicative of epilepsy, as other causes can lead to such seizures.
  • Partial (Focal) Seizures: Also known as partial motor seizures, these involve abnormal movements confined to one part of the body, like the face or a single leg. Partial seizures may progress to generalized seizures. It’s important to differentiate them, as partial seizures are acquired and not associated with primary epilepsy. A classic example is the “chewing gum” seizure, where the dog appears to chew involuntarily.
  • Complex Partial Seizures: Also referred to as psychomotor or behavioral seizures, these episodes resemble abnormal behavior rather than tremors or convulsions. The dog remains conscious but exhibits unusual behavior, including hysteria, rage, or hallucinations. An example is the “fly-biting” seizure, where the dog seems to chase and bite at imaginary flies.


  • Stiffening of the body and legs
  • Collapsing and falling over to the side
  • Chewing motion
  • Drooling
  • Paddling of the legs
  • Urinating
  • Defecating
  • Vocalizing
  • Violent shaking, trembling, and convulsing


The causes of epilepsy in dogs require a process of exclusion, wherein all known triggers of seizures must be eliminated before concluding a diagnosis of epilepsy. Typically, the initial seizure in dogs with primary epilepsy emerges between the ages of 6 months and 5 years.

In some cases, epilepsy may have an inherited component in certain dog breeds, including:

  • Beagle
  • Dachshund
  • German Shepherd Dog
  • Keeshond
  • Belgian Tervuren

Furthermore, although there’s no established genetic link, specific dog breeds exhibit a heightened incidence of epilepsy, such as:

  • Boxer
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Collie
  • Golden Retriever
  • Irish Setter
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Poodle
  • Saint Bernard
  • Siberian Husky
  • Wire Fox Terrier


The diagnostic process for epilepsy in dogs begins with confirming that the dog experienced a seizure. Having a video of the episode and maintaining a log detailing any signs of aura, the seizure’s description, duration, and the length of the post-ictal phase (during which the dog may be disoriented or appear blind for a few minutes to several hours) can be immensely helpful.

Dogs experiencing their first seizure should be promptly examined by a veterinarian. The evaluation involves a comprehensive history, physical examination, and thorough neurological assessment. A baseline evaluation may include a complete blood count, serum blood chemistry, and urinalysis to rule out other potential causes. Additionally, chest X-rays and an abdominal ultrasound may be recommended.

If initial tests yield no conclusive results, the veterinarian may suspect epilepsy. Referral to a veterinary neurologist might be advised, along with more advanced diagnostic procedures like bile acids testing, MRI scans, or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis. If all tests come back negative, epilepsy may be diagnosed as the underlying cause.


Managing epilepsy in dogs is a lifelong endeavor as there is no cure, but effective management is possible. Typically, lifelong daily medication is necessary for most cases, and the appropriate anti-epileptic medication for your dog will be determined by your veterinarian based on various factors.

The most commonly prescribed medications include:

  • Levetiracetam (Keppra)
  • Phenobarbital
  • Potassium bromide
  • Zonisamide

Combination therapy using anti-seizure medications like gabapentin (Neurontin) and pregabalin (Lyrica) is often employed for better control.

The treatment goal is to reduce the frequency of seizures, although complete elimination is generally unattainable. Control is considered achieved if the dog experiences less than one seizure every three months.

Certain emergency criteria necessitate immediate veterinary attention:

  • Seizure lasting more than 5 minutes
  • Cluster seizures, where one seizure follows another in rapid succession, posing a life-threatening situation
  • More than three seizures within a 24-hour period

Dogs with epilepsy may experience emergency situations at the onset of diagnosis and treatment or during ongoing management. It’s crucial to recognize that seizures can escalate in frequency, so if your dog’s seizures are poorly controlled, it’s important to follow up with your veterinarian promptly.

Living and Management

Witnessing your dog experience a seizure can be frightening and emotionally challenging, but it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Many pet parents share the same concerns about their dog’s health and future.

With appropriate medications, most dogs with epilepsy can lead normal lives. Consistently adhering to your dog’s medication schedule, ensuring medications are administered on time, and doses are not missed, is essential for effective epilepsy management, in collaboration with your veterinarian.

Depending on the medication prescribed, periodic follow-up appointments may be necessary. Some dogs may require adjustments to their medication regimen over time if breakthrough seizures occur. Regular communication and collaboration with your veterinarian are key to ensuring the best possible care for your dog’s epilepsy.

Epilepsy in Dogs FAQs

What might initiate a dog’s epilepsy?

The primary reported trigger for seizures in epileptic pets is stress. If you suspect you’ve identified a potential trigger, discuss it with your veterinarian and explore alternative options to mitigate its impact.

What is the life expectancy of dogs with epilepsy?

With well-controlled seizures, epileptic dogs can lead relatively normal lives and have typical lifespans.

At what age does epilepsy usually commence in dogs?

Typically, dogs will experience their initial seizure between the ages of 6 months and 5 years.

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