Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which the dog suffers from recurring seizures over a period of time. These are caused by an imbalance of the chemicals that transmit the electrical impulses in the brain. Grand mal seizures, which are most commonly associated with epilepsy, are characterized by loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions.
Epilepsy can be idiopathic (which means it comes from an unknown cause) or it can be acquired. The idiopathic epilepsy represents about 5 of dogs, which accounts for 80 of recurring seizures. The acquired epilepsy has an identifiable cause, most usually a head injury. The mass of scar tissue or lesions on the brain can be identified by performing different tests such as skull X-Rays, EEGs (also known as Electroencephalograms), CT (Computed Tomography) scans or a MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging).
"True" epilepsy involves the seizures to be recurrent and similar. They usually become more frequent with age. The seizures start between 6 months of age to 5 years. For certain breeds inheritance of epilepsy has been proven. This is the case with breeds like the Beagle, Dachshund, Keeshond and Belgian Tervurens. Other breeds that are most commonly associated with suspected inheritance are Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Irish Setters, Miniature Schnauzers and Akitas to name a few.
A typical epileptic seizure (grand mal seizure) consists of three phases. The first phase is called an Aura. This is when the dog will become restless, anxious, and may demand affection or seek seclusion. It is followed by an actual seizure (the Ictus phase), which lasts less then 2 minutes. The dog looses consciousness, may stop breathing for 10 to 30 seconds and has rigidly extended legs. It is followed by rhythmic jerking of the legs (known as "paddling"), chomping, chewing, defecating and urinating. In the post seizure (known as Post-Ictal), state the dog will regain consciousness and will act confused and disoriented. He will exhibit poor coordination and balance including possibly stumbling into walls or appearing blind. Less common behavior would include frenzied barking, licking or nibbling himself, staring into space or snapping at invisible objects. This state can last from a couple of minutes up to an hour. All of those phases may not be observed by the owner, especially if the animal is resting or sleeping.
Status epilepticus seizures or cluster seizures are multiple seizures lasting more than 5 minutes without the dog regaining consciousness. This is an emergency! If you can, call the hospital that you are headed to and advise them you are on your way to their facility with a dog that is having seizures that will not stop. The veterinary assistant or the staff answering the phone will remind you to safely handle the dog so you do not get injured. Precautions would include using a comforter or a towel to wrap up and pick up the dog. The dog is having involuntary muscle contractions and may bite unknowingly. The veterinarian needs to administer intravenous (in the vein) anti-convulsion medication to stop the seizure and prevent brain damage or death. This is urgent and time sensitive.
During the dog's seizure, make sure the dog is safe. Make sure that the dog is not able to injure himself by doing something like falling in the pool, tumbling down the stairs, etc. Try not to disturb the dog during the seizure as it may trigger further seizures and you could put yourself at risk of being injured. Never open the dogís mouth to pull out the tongue and do not put any objects in the dogís mouth, no matter what you might have heard!! Note the length of the seizure and inform your veterinarian. You will be asked to describe the seizure to the veterinarian, veterinary technician or the veterinary assistant. Since the veterinarianís treatment is going to be based on your information, a log should be kept. Note the date, frequency, duration and the behavior before, during and after the seizure.
Since epilepsy is not curable, the goal of treatment is to minimize the frequency and severity of the seizures. There are different types of medication used to treat this condition; however, anti-seizure medications are not 100 effective. A combination of multiple drugs may be used. The rule of thumb for the veterinarian to start your dog on medication to manage seizures is if your dog is having 2 or more seizures per month. If this is the case and your dog is put on medication, the goal is to reduce that number to 10 or less per year. The levels of the certain anti-seizure medications are going to be monitored with a simple blood test. Dosages may need to be adjusted though time so frequent follow-ups with your veterinarian are required.