If you’ve ever witnessed seizures in senior dogs as I have, you’ll know how frightening they can be.
What is a seizure?
A seizure, as explained by Dr Karen Becker, is an “abnormal unanticipated electrical activity that happens in your pet’s brain.”
While seizures can indicate epilepsy, it is uncommon in a senior dog, and more likely the result of other conditions.
My experience with Red having seizures
I don’t recall how long ago Red had her first seizure (probably within the last couple of years), but I’ll never forget the panic I felt. It was around 11:00 pm and I was watching tv. My husband and other dog Jack were already bed, and Red had been sleeping for about 2 hours or so. She was on her bed in the living room, out of my line of sight.
All of a sudden I heard a loud bang, and horrific cry. I jumped up and saw Red lying in her bed shaking. I had never experienced this before, instinct took over and I picked her up to comfort her.
She peed all over me and the carpet, and after a few seconds she was fine and went back to sleep like nothing happened. Of course I ran and woke my husband, then called the emergency hospital. They calmed me down and assured me there was no reason, at that point, to rush her in, but suggested I call my vet in the morning which I would have done regardless.
I asked for advice should it happen again and was told not to pick her up while she was having a seizure, and to turn the lights off.
Needless to say I watched her like a hawk that night.
Since then she’s had a few seizures, and they’ve followed the same pattern. Late at night while she was sleeping, starting with a heart wrenching cry, peeing on her bed, then carrying on sleeping.
Until Saturday night Dec. 17th 2016 I had never actually witnessed her having a seizure.
We were driving from England to Spain, and stopped in a hotel overnight. The dogs were with us in bed (I wasn’t going to let them sleep on a hotel room floor), with Red lying next to me. I noticed her starting to twitch and I told my husband I thought she was about to have a seizure. Her head went back, all four legs stretched out in front of her as though she was stretching and her body started to shake. She never woke up and continued to sleep after the seizure was over, which again lasted only a few seconds.
We have no idea why she gets them, and since they are so infrequent and last only seconds, the vet hasn’t felt the need to pursue it further. I was so worried she may have a bigger seizure one day, I asked my vet if there was anything I could have on hand for peace of mind. He gave me a syringe of rectal Diazepam should she ever suffer a more severe episode.
Now that Red is being treated by a holistic vet who has replaced a couple of her medications with supplements, and put her on a fresh homemade diet, it will be interesting to see how things improve and change.
Is it possible to tell when a dog is about to have a seizure?
You might see some of these symptoms:
- Uncontrolled twitching
- Loss of bladder and/or bowel control
- Falling over
- Leaping in the air
- Temporary loss of sight
- Inability to understand commands
What causes them?
- Low blood sugar levels
- Liver disease
- Poor circulation
- Calcium deficiency
- Brain tumours
- Heat stroke
- Exposure to toxins
- Blood or organs issues
- Some breeds may be predisposed to them
In senior dogs they are most often associated with:
- Brain tumours
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Insulin overdose in diabetic dogs
- Cushing’s Disease (not the disease itself but some of the issues associated with it)
It is not uncommon for older dogs to develop seizures which are idiopathic, meaning there is no known reason for them.
I found this video by Dr. Karen Becker extremely informative, with so much helpful information about understanding seizures and what causes them.
The 3 stages of a seizure
There are many possible signs that indicate a seizure will be coming, and can include:
- Losing their balance
In Red’s case she only has seizures while she’s sleeping. Each one started with a heart stopping (for me) horrible high pitched cry. My vet said it was because she knew something was happening, but didn’t know what.
This is the stage when your dog will experience a seizure, the symptoms of which will vary depending on its’ severity. They can be anything from growling and twitching to violent spasms and convulsions.
Red,’s head goes back, her limbs are outstretched and stiff, she loses control of her bladder and it’s over and back to sleep.
This is the recovery stage, when your dog will feel the seizure’s effects.
He may be:
The amount of time he will be feeling the effects will depend on how severe the seizure was.
As I mentioned above, because Red’s seizures have only ever taken place when she was sleeping, she would fall back to sleep immediately and wake up like nothing happened.
Are they painful?
They are painful for us to witness, but not painful to the dog.
Effects of seizures
Here is what Dennis O’Brien, DVM, PhD, Diplomate, ACVIM, Specialty of Neurology, University of Missouri, College of Veterinary Medicine has to say about the effects of seizures.
“Most seizures are brief, and with proper treatment, the pet can lead a normal life. None-the-less, seizures are serious business and even short seizures can cause brain damage. That damage tends to be cumulative over time. If the seizures are short, the main effect is an increased chance of another seizure in the future. Thus, there is a tendency for epilepsy to get worse over time, especially if left untreated.
If a seizure goes on for more than 30 minutes, the pet is liable to suffer serious permanent brain damage. This can be manifest as a change in personality, or loss of memory for things such house breaking. Occasionally the pet may be left in a coma from the seizures. The seizure also creates a tremendous stress on the heart and other organs. The body temperature may get very high from all the muscle activity and the animal may not breath adequately. Sometimes the stress is too much and the pet may have a heart attack and die. Fortunately this is rare.”
How to help a dog that’s having a seizure
Don’t panic. Easy to say, hard to do. When Red had her first seizure I was completely clueless, and boy did I panic.
I was advised to never pick her up in the middle, and turn off the lights.
Other tips I have read include:
- Moving any objects that may injure your dog
- Keeping hands away from their mouth to avoid getting bitten
- Staying with the dog, speaking to him and trying to comfort him
- Letting him rest
Very important!! Take notes and speak to your vet
As soon after the seizure as you can (assuming it wasn’t severe enough to rush your dog to the vet), write down as much information as you can.
- Date (so you and your vet can track frequency)
- What you witnessed
- What was your dog doing right before it happened? Any unusual behaviour?
- How long it lasted
- How did he act after it was over
- How long did it take him to get back to his usual self
Seizures in senior dogs are often the result of an underlying medical condition, so your vet will decide what kind of tests, if any, he feels are required. They can be things like blood and urine, as well as CT or MRI.
Whether he starts investigating immediately, or prefers to adopt a “wait and see approach” is something you will discuss with him.
In Red’s case it is “wait and see.”
Whether or not you are prescribed medication is of course up to your vet, a decision based on frequency and severity of the episodes. Red does not take any, yet a friend’s senior dog was given something daily.
The two most commonly used medications are phenobarbital (PB) and potassium bromide (KBr). Neither are guaranteed to be 100% effective in every dog, and according to 1800petmeds there is the risk of side effects.
“Unfortunately, PB, KBr, and Primidone and may have serious side effects in your pet: liver damage, drowsiness, weight gain, change in personality, and interfering with bone marrow so that your pet has insufficient infection-fighting white blood cells and blood clotting cells (thrombocytes). To decrease the possibility of side effects—which are more severe as the dosage is increased—some veterinarians recommend using smaller amounts of two medications rather than a large amount of one medication. Veterinarians also recommend avoiding toxins and using supplements to support the brain and liver so that medication dosages can be kept to a minimum.”
A more natural approach
Here is some information, again from 1800petmeds, you may find helpful should you wish to consider chemical free options.
“Be Serene, the calming flower remedy
Chinese herbs that improve liver health, such as Tian
Ma Gou Teng Yin
Gold bead implants at acupuncture points
Homeopathic Aconitum 30 C or Cocculus 30 C
Magnesium 25 mg/10 pounds body weight for pets with healthy kidneys
Vitamin E 25 mg/10 lb
Taurine: 60 mg/10 lb
Melatonin 1-3 mg at bedtime”
For more options on treating seizures naturally, please read my post “Natural Remedies For Seizures in Dogs.”
Check out my podcast about seizures here
Seizures in senior dogs – conclusion
As someone who shares their life with a senior dog who has had seizures, I can tell you it scares the hell out of me. Sometimes late at night I worry it may happen again, and dread that cry that precedes another episode.
Having said that. seizures in senior dogs is not a given so don’t worry about it unnecessarily.
Does your senior dog experience seizures? Has your vet determined the cause? Prescribed any medication? How have you been handling it? It would be great if you could share your story here, or on my Facebook page. Don’t be surprised by how many people it could help.