How Epilepsy Affects Dogs
Whether genetic or caused by some identifiable physical condition or disorder, the symptoms of epilepsy are typically the same. An affected dog usually loses its sense of balance and collapses, loses consciousness, stiffens, chomps or chews, froths profusely from its mouth, pees and poops (urinates and defecates), makes unusual vocal sounds and paddles the air rhythmically with stiff limbs. The actual seizured usually last less than 2 minutes, although they can last longer.
Owners of epileptic dogs normally notice one or more of the following:
- Intermittent or episodic loss of consciousness
- Intermittent or episodic mental or physical impairment (confusion, stiffness, twitching)
- Abnormal musculoskeletal (motor) activity or movements that are uniformly bilateral and symmetrical (about the same on both sides); often referred to as paddling or running in the air with rigid legs
- Excess drooling/salivation (profuse frothing at the mouth)
- Inappropriate urination (during the episode)
- Inappropriate defecation (during the episode)
- Abnormal vocalization (barking, whining, yelping, howling; often frenzied)
- Chewing, chomping, licking, facial twitching, snapping at air or invisible objects
- Sensory disturbances; disorientation
- Seizures (also called “clonic-tonic convulsions,” which have phases of jerking and flexing of the muscles alternating with phases of relaxation)
- Presence of an “aura” of altered behavior before the onset of seizure activity. During this relatively short period (called the pre-ictal period), the dog may act dazed, disoriented, glassy-eyed, anxious, restless, scared or uncertain. It may stare into space and hide or may become attention-seeking and clingy.
Seizures are more common during periods of sleep or rest. As a result, they tend to occur more frequently at night or first thing in the morning and can often be missed by owners due to their timing. Epileptic seizures also tend to increase in frequency if they are untreated for prolonged periods of time.
After a seizure, the dog usually has a fairly recognizable syndrome referred to as post-ictal behavior. This phase can last from less than an hour to 24 hours or more and may include:
- Pacing (aimless, compulsive, seemingly without purpose)
- Temporary blindness or impaired vision (bumping into furniture or walls, stumbling over obvious objects, reluctance to navigate stairs, etc.)
- Increased thirst and water consumption (polydipsia)
- Increased appetite and food consumption (polyphagia)
Dogs at Increased Risk
Epilepsy seems to be more common in large-breed dogs and slightly more common in males, although any breed or gender can be affected. Idiopathic epilepsy (that with no discernable cause) is seen most frequently in certain dog breeds, including the Toy, Miniature and Standard Poodle, German Shepherd, Australian Shepherd, Boxer, Cocker Spaniel, Keeshond, Dachshund, Alsatian, Vizsla, Shetland Sheepdog, Saint Bernard, Siberian Husky, Welsh Corgi, Wire-Haired Fox Terrier, Bernese Mountain Dog, Irish Wolfhound, Irish Setter, English Springer Spaniel, Finnish Spitz, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Collie, Border Collie, Belgian Tervuren and Beagle. Epilepsy is considered to be hereditary in these breeds and typically is first seen in young dogs between one and five years of age that present with generalized seizure episodes but otherwise have normal mental and physical function. Dogs with an epileptic parent are at a greatly increased risk of developing epilepsy.