Old dog seizures, or seizures at any other age, probably rank pretty high on the list of things most dog parents hope they never experience. Seizures are scary—plain and simple. But integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby is here to help. With compassion and understanding, she discusses how to recognize seizures, why they occur, the types of seizures, how they are treated, and what to do if your dog has a seizure.
If you’ve ever seen a dog have a seizure, you know it’s scary. Your dog is fine one moment and then completely abnormal the next—his movements may be erratic or uncontrollable. Even if the seizure only lasts a few seconds, it can feel like an eternity. It may even be hard for you to describe what you’ve seen. As difficult as the moment of your dog’s seizure is, there is some comfort in knowing that your dog is not in pain.
Learning more about seizures in dogs may not make them any less scary in the moment. However, it can help you understand how to comfort and safely care for your beloved dog during the seizure. Also, it can give you an idea of what to expect afterward, and what you can do in partnership with your veterinarian in the future to help your dear dog.
What are old dog seizures?
First, let’s define what a seizure is—and what it isn’t.
Think about the brain as the command center of the body. It sends electrical impulses to various parts of the body to cause an action—be that walking, barking, or breathing. Normally this is a good thing. But what if the brain temporarily goes haywire, sending random electrical impulses out willy-nilly? Well, that is sort of what happens when a dog has a seizure.
The medical definition of a seizure is an involuntary neurologic event due to temporary abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Pretty much this means that for a short period of time, the brain is sending out uncontrolled, abnormal electrical impulses.
When these impulses reach their target in the body, they may cause atypical body movements like head tremors or jerking of the legs. They can also cause behavior changes. The exact signs will be determined by the area of the brain where the abnormal electrical activity was centered.
What kind of seizures do dogs have?
The different types of seizures in dogs include:
- Psychomotor seizures: Affected dogs may stare into space or seem to be in a daze. These strange behaviors are not typically accompanied by abnormal physical movements.
- Focal or partial seizures: When abnormal electrical activity only occurs in one area of the brain, a dog exhibits localized signs. These may include movement of only one limb, facial twitching, or chewing movements.
- Grand mal or generalized seizures: These severe seizures affect multiple areas of the brain and may cause complete loss of consciousness and violent limb movements.
It is a seizure or something else?
Dog parents will understandably sometimes confuse seizures with another abnormal event called syncope. The term syncope is used to refer to a fainting, collapsing, or passing out event, often due to underlying heart disease in dogs. Looking at when the seizure occurs may help differentiate the conditions.
Syncope is mostly triggered by excitement, coughing, or some other activity. In contrast, seizures can occur when a dog is resting. Also, there are usually signs that indicate when a seizure is about to occur or has just occurred. Syncopal events do not have these warning signs.
It also helps to check the color of the dog’s gums and tongue if you can do so safely. You may notice your dog’s gums are pale or blue during a syncopal episode due to poor oxygen delivery. This is not typically seen in short seizures that only last a few seconds or minutes. (Don’t use your fingers to check gum color if your dog is actively convulsing because your dog could accidentally bite you.)
Two other conditions that may be confused with a seizure are old dog vestibular disease (aka doggy vertigo) or a stroke in dogs. In these conditions, a dog may be unable to stand, have a head tilt, or have eyes that are rapidly moving back and forth. However, unlike some seizures, the dog will be alert and responsive to you. Signs of vestibular disease or stroke may also last for days, and seizures typically last for a few seconds or minutes.
What do seizures look like?
When picturing seizures in older dogs, many dog parents imagine erratic movements and paddling of the limbs. However, not all seizures are this violent. Additionally, there are periods of time before and after the actual seizure where you may notice your dear dog is not acting right. It’s important to recognize those as part of the seizure event too.
There are three phases to a seizure event. Each name uses the term “ictal” which means “relating to a seizure.”
1. Pre-ictal phase, i.e. aura
During the pre-ictal phase, a dog displays unusual behavior. He or she may seem restless or confused, act nervous, or try to hide. Some dogs will seek out their owner. You may notice crying, shaking, or drooling. The pre-ictal phase can last for a few seconds or up to several hours.
2. Ictal phase
The ictal phase is when actual seizure activity occurs. In a psychomotor seizure, some dogs will stare into space and appear unresponsive. This is known as “star-gazing” because it looks like they are staring at the sky. They may also have a “fly-biting” seizure. As the name implies, the dog will bite at the air around the head as if trying to catch a buzzing fly.
During a focal or partial seizure, a dog’s ears, eyelids, or face on one side of the body may twitch. They may also move a limb or limbs abnormally. These dogs may or may not have altered consciousness. In some cases, a focal or partial seizure will progress to a generalized or grand mal seizure.
Grand mal seizures involve the loss of body function and consciousness. In some cases, dogs will lie down and twitch or convulse. They might smack their lips or bite at the air, and their legs will lock up and appear tense. Affected dogs may also lose control of the bowels and bladder.
In other cases, dogs will suddenly fall over and start paddling their legs. Their head and neck may arch backward, and they may cry out and whine while this is happening. These seizures appear particularly violent and can be very frightening to witness.
3. Post-ictal phase
After a seizure has finished, dogs may be more aware of their surroundings, but they are still not 100% normal. They may stay in one place, pant and drool excessively, and appear restless, disoriented, or confused. This phase may last for anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour.
What can I do to help my dog?
If your dog is having a seizure, it is important to stay calm. To protect your dog and yourself from injury:
- Cushion your pup’s head with a pillow or blanket
- Use pillows to support your dog
- Move furniture or other dangerous items away from your dog
- If your dog is near stairs or in another dangerous location such as on a bed or couch, carefully move your dog to a safer location on the floor.
- Remember not to stick your fingers in your dog’s mouth because you might accidently get bitten. You dog’s airway should be ok.
Once your dog is in a safe place, you can try capturing a video of the seizure. Now that most people have smartphones, this is pretty easy to do. Sharing the video with your vet can help him or her verify it was a seizure and classify the seizure type.
It also helps to keep a seizure journal that lists the date and time of the seizure. You can jot down how long it lasted, what happened exactly, and if there were any specific triggers.
In some cases, the excitement of playing or eating can alter a dog’s brain activity, increasing the risk of a seizure. In fact, I had one patient who had seizures whenever he played with a yellow tennis ball. Once his owners figured that out, it was a pretty easy fix.
It can also be helpful to record any new food, treat, or medication you gave your dog around the time of the seizure. Certain flea and tick preventives or other medications may increase the chances of seizure activity.
What causes seizures?
Seizures may happen for a variety of reasons. Some of them include:
- Low blood sugar (This is primarily seen in young puppies, diabetic dogs who receive too much insulin, or dogs with insulin-secreting tumors.)
- Head trauma
- Various toxins including xylitol toxicity in dogs
- Idiopathic epilepsy (The true cause for this condition is unknown. But it usually starts in dogs between the ages of one and four years, and is more common in certain breeds.)
- Bacterial, viral, protozoal, or tick-borne infections in dogs
- Congenital abnormalities
- Benign or malignant (cancerous) tumors
- Kidney or liver disease
- Electrolyte imbalances
Why do old dogs have seizures?
If an otherwise healthy senior dog starts having seizures, there is usually an underlying cause. This is in contrast to younger dogs who are more likely to have idiopathic epilepsy where no cause can be found. Whenever I see an older dog with new onset seizures, my top differentials are metabolic diseases and tumors.
Senior dogs are more prone to kidney and liver disease. As either of those organs fail, toxins build up in their blood stream. When these toxins reach the brain, seizures can occur. Also, older dogs are more likely to have diabetes mellitus. If they become hypoglycemic (have low blood sugar), they may have seizures.
Finally, older dogs are at a higher risk for tumors. An insulinoma (insulin secreting pancreatic tumor) can lead to low blood sugar. Also, seizures can be caused by benign or malignant tumors in the brain. Some tumors originate in the brain. Others metastasize (spread) to the brain from cancer elsewhere in the body.
What tests will my vet perform?
In order to narrow down the list of causes we discussed above, your veterinarian may recommend:
- Blood tests to evaluate organ function, blood sugar, electrolytes, and blood cell numbers.
- X-rays of the chest or abdomen.
- MRI or CT to look for brain inflammation or tumors.
- Additional specialized testing.
What is the treatment for old dog seizures?
Your vet will consider several factors when determining how to manage your dog’s seizures. One component of treatment involves addressing the underlying cause of the seizures, if one can be found. The other component is anti-seizure medication. Your vet will ask you questions about how often your dog is having seizures, how intense they are, and how long they last.
Consideration for choosing anti-seizure medications
If the following criteria apply to your canine companion, anti-seizure medication may be needed:
- Severe seizures lasting longer than five minutes
- Cluster seizures (two or more in 24 to 48 hours)
- Multiple seizures in a month
Your veterinarian may prescribe anti-seizure medications like phenobarbital for dogs, potassium bromide, levetiracetam, or zonisamide. Some dogs start out with just one of these medications. If seizures are still not well controlled despite routine medication usage, your vet may prescribe a second or even a third medication.
Clients sometimes ask me about CBD oil for dogs because they have heard it is a possible seizure treatment in humans. At this point, there is very little scientific evidence to support the use of CBD oil for dogs with seizures. However, bigger clinical trials are currently underway.
It is important to remember that the goal of anti-seizure medications is to decrease the severity, frequency, and duration of the seizures. Anti-seizure medications may not stop your dog from ever having another seizure.
The decision to start anti-seizure medications isn’t always clear cut. You and your veterinarian must work together to decide what is best for your dog. These medications require careful monitoring, sometimes have undesirable side effects, and are often needed lifelong. However, they also have the potential to greatly improve the quality of life of dogs with seizures.
When are seizures an emergency?
Watching a dog have a seizure is terrifying. It may be hard to know when you need to immediately rush your dog to the vet, and when you should call and make an appointment. Here are some criteria that may help:
1. How long did the seizure last?
Seizures often last a few seconds to several minutes. Try to start a stopwatch or look at the time when the seizure activity starts so you can track the seizure duration.
Status epilepticus is the term used to describe a seizure that lasts longer than five minutes or two seizures that occur back to back without regaining consciousness. This can cause brain damage and dangerous increases in body temperature.
Call your vet immediately if you suspect status epilepticus and/or take your dog to the nearest emergency clinic.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Status epilepticus is an emergency where time is of the essence.
2. How many seizures did your dog have?
Sometimes multiple seizures will occur within a 24 to 48 hour period of time. These are known as cluster seizures. While not as urgent as status epilepticus, you should still call your veterinarian immediately if your dog is having cluster seizures.
3. Is this the first time your dog had a seizure?
Finally, whenever a dog has a seizure for the first time, they should be seen by a veterinarian for a full evaluation. Some dogs will have a seizure one time and never again. Other dogs will continue to have more seizures through their lifetime. The term “epilepsy” is used to describe this recurrent seizure activity.
When in doubt, it is always better to err on the side of calling your vet. That way, he or she can help you decide what is best for your dog’s situation.
When should euthanasia be considered?
Sometimes clients will ask me, “How do I know when it is time to put down my old dog with seizures?” This is such a hard but important question. Unfortunately, there are times when seizures cannot be adequately controlled with medications and we are out of options.
Other times a dog is in status epilepticus and the damage to the body is too great. The underlying causes of seizures like organ failure and cancer can take a toll on a dog’s body. Any of these factors, and others, may decrease a dog’s quality of life. As a result, devoted dog parents may make the heartbreaking decision that euthanasia is the kindest choice.
Ultimately, I can’t tell you when it is time for your dog. Only you can make that decision. I can however, offer you these resources that may help guide you through the process:
- Preparing for Your Dog’s Euthanasia: 10 Thoughts for Peace
- Grieving the Loss of a Dog After Euthanasia (& Finding Peace)
- Dog Euthanasia: Knowing When to Say Goodbye
- How Will You Know When It’s Time to Euthanize Your Dog? 5 Caring, Heartfelt Messages
- Saying Goodbye to Our Dog: Dr. Buzby’s Heartfelt Story of How Her Family Spent the Last Days With Luke
If you think your dog’s quality of life is declining due to seizures, talk to your veterinarian too. Like you, he or she has your dog’s best interests in mind and can help you work through this difficult decision.
Three parting pieces of advice
If there were three things I could tell dog parents to remember it would be this:
- Seizures are scary for everyone. Stay calm. Do what you can to keep your dog safe but don’t get injured in the process.
- Try to record as many details about the seizure as you can. The more information you can give your vet the better.
- Your vet is your ally. Communicate with him or her about how your dog is doing and don’t be afraid to call with concerns.
It may never get easier to watch your dog have a seizure. But armed with the information in this article, I hope you and your dog can navigate old dog seizures with a bit more confidence.
What is one piece of advice you want to share with others about seizures in senior dogs?
Please comment below.