The first time you see your pet in the middle of a seizure, it’s like time has stopped. You feel helpless, not knowing how long it will last or what will happen next.
Seizures happen when electrical activity in the brain becomes disorganized, slipping free of the coordinated circuits that usually keep things running smoothly. Sometimes this is the result of an underlying problem like a toxin or brain tumor. But many cases have no underlying cause—or, at least, not one that can be found—and are called idiopathic. These animals have epilepsy.
A variety of symptoms can be seen during a seizure. Some animals are completely possessed by the episode, losing consciousness, stiffening up, twitching and urinating or defecating. But many will suffer partial seizures, with milder tremors limited to the head or a few limbs. In some ways, these can be even more upsetting because the animal may be alert enough to grow frightened or upset.
Whatever kind of seizure you observe, it is important to react without panicking. It may be hard to believe in the moment, but things will probably be fine. If this is the first time, it is wise to seek immediate veterinary care. Be careful moving your pet—even gentle animals may bite while in the throes of a fit. There is a very good chance the episode will have passed by the time you make it to the vet, but, if not, at least you’ll be in the right place.
The first step is to make sure this really was a seizure. This is especially vital in cats, because they are rarely epileptic compared with dogs, and almost always have something else brewing. There are several conditions that can effectively mimic seizures, and it won’t do any good to treat the wrong thing. Heart disease is one of the most common, capable of starving the brain of oxygen long enough to produce similar convulsions.
After the initial examination, your vet may recommend lab work to begin screening for underlying causes. Although frustrating, it may not be possible to rule everything out at once. Hidden causes such as brain tumors may require advanced (and expensive) testing like spinal taps and MRIs, and these are not typically pursued right away. But in otherwise young healthy dogs, it is often safe to presume they are genuinely epileptic.
It is not a foregone conclusion that epileptic animals require treatment. If the symptoms are mild and sporadic, affected pets may do just fine without intervention. But as episodes become more frequent and severe, medical management can be of great help. Control is rarely perfect, and even treated animals may have breakthrough episodes here and there. It is important to discuss the benefits and risks with your veterinarian before deciding what is best for your pet.
In the long run, it’s not generally necessary to seek veterinary help every time you see an episode. Regardless of how terrifying that first one may have seemed at the time, owners of epileptic animals grow surprisingly accustomed to seeing this happen now and then. It is worth taking another look, however, if seizures start lasting more than a few minutes or begin happening more than once every month or two. Keeping a journal of seizure activity can make it easier to identify broader trends. And although it may not be your first concern at the time, obtaining video of an episode may help your veterinarian to better understand what is going on.
Epilepsy can be frightening for sure. But the good news is that its bark is frequently worse than its bite, and most epileptic animals live full and normal lives.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.
Up for adoption!
You can meet these animals from noon-6pm daily, at the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, where they’re all available for adoption. 3355 Berkmar Dr. 973-5959, caspca.org
I’m Brandy, and I may be 2, but there’s nothing terrible about me! Like everyone I know, I enjoy cozy places, long naps and a good back scratch. Since I’ve lived at the CASPCA for 200 days, the thing I’d enjoy most, though, is a forever home.
Yo, I’m Bubba. And I arrived as a stray, but it didn’t take me long to become best buds with the shelter’s
staff and volunteers. I’m housebroken, and I like my chew toys, going for walks and lounging in bed—not necessarily in that order.
Sugar Plum’s the name, and affection’s my game. Alas, I’m currently sans family (mine moved and couldn’t take me along), so I have nobody to shower with love and warmth. I’m also a cool, versatile cat who’s happy both indoors and outside.
If you’re a big-dog person, Magnus (that’s me!) is your man. I’m a polite, handsome, calm dude who needs a pair of strong hands to take me on adventures. Oh, and cats aren’t really my thing, so I’m best-suited for a home with other dogs.