Focus on Epilepsy


Written by Dr Kathryn Knipe – Principal Veterinarian at Animal Anti-Cruelty League Johannesburg

Epilepsy or, more correctly, Idiopathic Epilepsy, is a term used to describe a condition of abnormal electrical activity in the brain which causes seizures or convulsions. A seizure is an episode of involuntary muscle contractions of the body’s voluntary muscles (the major muscles responsible for walking and other normal movement). Typical signs involve altered consciousness, collapse with stiffening of the muscles, and paddling movements of the legs; this is usually transient. Any convulsions that do not cease require immediate veterinary attention.

Seizures are symptoms

It is important at this point to differentiate a seizure from Idiopathic Epilepsy (IE). A seizure is a symptom of Idiopathic Epilepsy; it tells us what is happening to the dog, but does not tell us why. Your dog may experience a seizure for any number of reasons not related to IE. Seizures can be caused by hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), heat stroke, developmental brain abnormalities, physical trauma, intoxications, inflammation or infection in the brain, as well as various metabolic disturbances (diseases that affect the biochemistry of the body).

For this reason, it is important to seek veterinary attention for your pet if it has a seizure. Your vet will examine your pet, likely doing a few in-house blood tests; they may need to send blood samples to the laboratory or do other tests to rule out any other diseases that may be causing the seizures. This is important as the underlying disease may be more detrimental to your pet’s health than the actual seizure.

A diagnosis of Idiopathic Epilepsy is made when no other reason for your pet’s seizure can be established. It is typically diagnosed in young dogs (between one and five years). Certain breeds are more predisposed to developing epilepsy, including Beagles, Dachshunds, Siberian Huskies, German Shepherds, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers, although mixed breeds can also get them; an inherited component is likely. IE is rare in cats; seizures will most likely be due to other causes that will need to be investigated by your vet. Dogs with IE usually go long periods of time during which they are normal between seizures, whereas other causes typically lead to more frequent seizures.

Spotting a seizure  

An epileptic seizure is often preceded by an initial phase of abnormal behaviour such as licking, excessive barking, salivating, hyperactivity, or decreased activity (lethargy). This phase may last from minutes to days prior to a seizure. Following the convulsion, the animal will experience what we refer to as a post-ictal phase, during which they may experience disorientation, uncontrolled voiding of their bladder and/or bowels, a change in appetite, or changes in behaviour.

The most important thing is: do not panic. Do not attempt to pull your pet’s tongue out of its mouth as you could inadvertently be bitten (and it is a myth that they can swallow their tongues). Remain calm and only move your pet to ensure their safety – for example, if they collapse near moving vehicles or where they may potentially drown or knock into something. Get other pets and people out of the room to reduce stress. Once they regain consciousness, they will find your presence reassuring; staying calm helps them remain calm. If the seizure shows no signs of relenting within a couple of minutes, prompt veterinary intervention is warranted.

The path ahead

Animals diagnosed with IE need long-term treatment. It is very important to accept that epilepsy is not a disease which can be cured, but rather a chronic condition that can be managed. The aim of treatment is not to completely stop seizures, but rather to lower the frequency and intensity of seizures to improve your pet’s quality of life. This means that, although your pet receives daily medication, he or she will still experience a seizure from time to time. Be prepared for this. Your vet may choose to give you a drug to administer per rectum in the event of violent seizure.

Always ensure that you have your vet’s details (including emergency contact) close at hand, should you need to contact them, and have the contact details and address of your nearest emergency, after-hours veterinary clinic. Keep information regarding your pet’s medication, including drug name and dosage, on hand in case you need to take them elsewhere other than your regular vet. These are good guidelines to follow with any pet, especially those receiving chronic medication.

Should your pet be diagnosed with IE, he or she requires lifelong therapy. If, at any point, you discontinue their medication, seizures will occur more frequently – and more violently. It is therefore crucial to always collect your pet’s repeat prescriptions from your vet in good time (set a reminder on your phone), and make necessary arrangements should you be going away and boarding them or having a pet sitter take care of them. The person caring for your epileptic pet should be carefully instructed on how and when to administer the medication, and be given all necessary contact details (as above). Also instruct them on what action to take should your pet have a seizure.

Your pet needs regular blood tests, typically every six months, to determine possible side effects of the drug, as well as to monitor drug levels in their blood. The most commonly used drugs activate the liver to break them down more quickly; in time, it will likely be necessary for your vet to increase the dosage to maintain adequate seizure control.

With careful monitoring and a strict medication regime, your epileptic pet can live a good life for many years ahead.  

Follow the Facebook page ‘Canine epilepsy awareness’ to chat with other people whose pets have epilepsy.

Testimonial Story

Caring for Comet

Written by Mandy Robinson

Epilepsy. The word alone scares me. I had a friend in primary school who suffered from epilepsy; the first time I saw her having a seizure scared me in ways I cannot even begin to describe. In a way, that experience has helped me… you see, I have a dog that suffers from epilepsy. 

Comet’s first seizure

Comet was a healthy, well-adjusted young Labrador pup who showed no signs of any illness during his early months with me. Even though he was a ‘breeder reject’, I was never really concerned about any hereditary ailments. This all changed one afternoon just before my beautiful yellow boy turned one. The events that followed were terrible – and became a learning curve for my entire family.

I was watching Comet in the garden, doing what Labradors do best: digging in the mud and sniffing out invisible birds. The next moment he started walking with stiff legs, looking confused and unstable on his legs. Before I could reach him, he dropped to the ground and started shaking uncontrollably. The sight of his legs all stiff, head thrown back, eyes wide and jaw clenched was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I ran to him and tried to comfort him, shouting at my husband to call our vet.

We raced Comet to the vet. During the trip he went into what we now call ‘recovery mode’ – but he still looked very confused and scared. The vet immediately suspected epilepsy, a diagnosis I vehemently refused to accept. Not my dog! Not my Comet! We had plans; we were going to do trail work and scent work, this couldn’t be… we had plans!

There is no ‘epilepsy test’; diagnosis is based on a process of elimination and the frequency and severity of the seizures. Over the next couple of days, my poor boy was subjected to a battery of tests, including blood panels and X-rays. Once we’d eliminated other possible causes such as hypoglycaemia, environmental toxins, etc., I was forced to grow used to the idea that my perfect boy had idiopathic epilepsy. During this time he suffered two more seizures, confirming the diagnosis.

Finding a path for Comet

And so began months of research and self-education. The internet is a scary thing with much conflicting advice and opinions, so I started hunting for holistic approaches, corresponding with vets around the world and speaking to other people with epileptic dogs. 

The first step was to get Comet onto anticonvulsant medication to help control the severity, duration, and frequency of the seizures. Each dog is different and reacts differently to medications. We tried various drugs, none of which did the trick, until settling on a combination of phenobarbital (the favoured canine epilepsy treatment) and potassium bromide.

All drugs come with their own ‘problems’, hence my reluctance to use strong, synthetic drugs on Comet, but the benefits greatly outweigh the negative effects. On a yearly basis we do tests to ensure his liver function is still fine. He has gained some weight and, on some days, he is a bit lethargic, but, overall, Comet is the same loving, energetic dog I adore.

During all his initial ‘medical trials’, I’d started keeping a Comet Seizure Diary. This included date, time, seizure severity and duration, recovery time, events preceding the seizure, and even what he’d eaten prior to the seizure. I didn’t realise then just how invaluable this diary would be... 

Helping Comet holistically

With the diary’s help, I established a pattern which helped me to curb his seizures. I found that after experiencing intense excitement or exercise he would have a seizure within 12 hours. Comet never does anything in half measures; if the ball bounces one metre high, he will jump five metres to catch it. Sadly, this natural excitability had to be curbed. I also discovered that flash photography and the flashing TV screen triggered seizures. If he didn’t get a full night’s uninterrupted sleep, he was prone to seizures. I now have him better trained than my children; at 8pm he takes himself to bed and sleeps through until the next morning.

I’d struggled to find information on dietary requirements for epileptic dogs as an additional way of managing seizures. Finally, I made contact with a fellow owner of an epileptic fur kid – all the way in Australia; following her recommendations based on her own success with her dog, I made some changes to Comet’s diet...

Over-the-counter foods were out; food free from artificial preservatives, colourants and additives were in. Diets high in good fats, low in carbohydrates have been found to decrease excitability of neurons in humans, and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids can decrease the frequency and severity of seizures; wild-caught salmon oil and antioxidant vitamins C, A, and B complex now top our shopping list. Comet’s diet is grain-free; canines do not need grains, plus a link has been established between high-grain diets and autoimmune problems, allergies, and digestive and liver problems – all of which can cause seizures.

This combination of medication with diet and lifestyle changes has definitely benefited Comet; in the last eight months, he has only had three seizures, and his recovery after each one was much faster. 

I won’t lie, epilepsy is scary, but it is not the end of the world. We have had some hairy experiences, like when he had a seizure whilst swimming in a dam – we now know that ice-cold water can trigger a seizure. It’s a constant learning curve, with new information being made available through ongoing research. We owe it to our dogs to monitor their condition and to ensure that we’re informed. Don’t be scared to ask questions; be responsible, report any changes to your vet, and, most of all, love and enjoy your dog!